For the Love of Stories: Imagining Quakerism Beyond Belief

That Infamous Guardian Article

A few days before Britain Yearly Meeting 2018, a comment piece appeared in Britain’s Guardian newspaper with the mischievous title, “The Quakers are right. We don’t need God” (May 4, 2018). The piece’s author Simon Jenkins praised British Friends for their refreshing take on spiritual matters:

The Quakers are clearly on to something. At their annual get-together this weekend they are reportedly thinking of dropping God from their “guidance to meetings”. The reason, said one of them, is because the term “makes some Quakers feel uncomfortable”. Atheists, according to a Birmingham University academic, comprise a rising 14% of professed Quakers, while a full 43% felt “unable to profess a belief in God”. They come to meetings for fellowship, rather than for higher guidance.[1]

Instead of taking refuge in the metaphysical consolations, Jenkins sees Quakers as a group of honest therapeutics, committed to ‘expressing doubts, fears and joys amid a company of “friends”, who respond only with their private silence.’[2] Suffice to say, Jenkins interpretation of contemporary British Quakerism generated a forceful response from the Guardian’s letter pages, with one Friend remarking, ‘discomfort with “God language” is not the same thing as the abandonment of a spiritual life. Even non-theist Quakers have a spiritual life, and certainly don’t come to meetings just for fellowship.’[3] Another Friend remarked, ‘While there is certainly a spectrum of beliefs among Quakers, including those who call themselves “non-theists”, the question is more to do with how Friends think of God than of his absence.’[4] While these responses are clearly meant to reassure the reader that British Quakerism has not become a form of secular therapy, the acknowledgement of discomfort with theological language and the existence of a ‘spectrum of beliefs’ is indicative of an unruly complexity in the identity of British Quakers which defies simple definition. Yet, such spiritual intricacy is not simply perplexing to outsiders like journalists but is becoming increasingly perplexing to Friends themselves. As Keith Redfern expresses the existential challenge of our present condition:

The current climate is one of questioning and self-examination in an effort to find the right way forward. Before we can do this however, we have to be sure that we know who we are. Although British Quakers maybe clear individually as to their stage on a spiritual journey, as a religious community it seems that we are still seeking unity regarding our overall spiritual position.[5]

Such diversity becomes vividly apparent when Friends are asked to explain what they are doing in Meetings for Business. Is the Meeting’s practice of discernment dependent upon some conception of Divine Guidance, a form of consensus decision-making or the unconscious wisdom of the group? If the first option than the decision arrived may possess a significance far beyond those gathered in Worship. If the latter options, the decision a Meeting might reach is merely the product of circumstance.  As Redfern notes pessimistically of this divergence of understanding:

We are a Religious Society, in direct descent from those of the 17th century who realised that it is possible to have a direct communication with God; that we are not alone in our decision making, but that the Spirit is constantly on hand to guide and advise. If we insist on going it alone in our Quaker business, we may never find unity in anything and risk pulling our Yearly Meeting asunder.[6]

One does not have to wholly agree with Redfern’s conclusion to see the fundamental issue he is driving at. If radical diversity is the new reality of 21st century British Quakerism, the question rightly persists, what, if anything, unites its miscellaneous strands? Does the Spirit evoked in the process of Quaker discernment even have an identifiable character to which diverse Quakers can assent? On initial inspection, it appears that Universalist, Christian and Non-theist Friends live in separate religious silos, each generating their own expression of Quaker spirituality. While Meeting for Worship may bring such Friends together in physical terms, their visions of Quaker life and Worship are radically different. Yet this rather polarised view of the present situation is overly hasty, since it ignores the striking similarities between diverse perspectives. Such similarities rest on the common philosophical terrain of ‘belief’. In the theistic version of this account, something called ‘Quaker theism’ is the key ingredient for binding Friends together into a unified whole. As Derek Guiton starkly puts the problem:

The Society today is criss-crossed with divisions and it appears that we now have no alternative but to ‘celebrate’ the diversity that, far from being a strength it is ritually affirmed to be, is in danger of destroying the unity which Friends have always regarded to be there, despite differences in their outward lives. Theists, non-Theists, atheists, Christians, pagans, Universalists, humanists, Friends who welcome this diversity, Friends who regret it, we sit in the same room and share the same silence.[7]

The answer to such discordance according to Guiton is the adoption of a broad-based theological position that ‘unites Friends in the essentials’[8]–an ‘area of acceptable belief’[9] which is ‘theistic without being Trinitarian’[10] and rooted in a ‘rich vein of mystical Christianity.’[11] Here we see the common assumption that belief always comes first in the religious life. Actions are said to spring from such belief.  The concern behind Guiton’s formulation is that the intense debates over Quakerism’s future are the result of substantial deviation at the level of core belief, which inevitably causes a rupture in the fabric of the community. What about folk we might call modelist Friends? While it is true that the notion of core belief is less important to Quakers of this disposition, the centrality of belief remains the same. What such Friends claim is that there should be maximum freedom of belief in the context of a supportive community. As the Universalist Quaker Tony Philpott summarises this attitude: ‘The freedom to believe what I wish…enables me to use whatever model of the self is appropriate; I am not constrained by the Christian model of ‘the sinful man’ or an atheist model of monism and materialism. As with many of my beliefs I can have a universalist and syncretic view of the self.’[12] The non-theist David Boulton broadly concurs, arguing:

The theological diversity that has increasingly marked liberal Friends throughout the world over the last 120 years is the result of our growing discernment that unity is not dependent on someone’s notion of doctrinal orthodoxy. That’s a liberating experience – and a humbling one! It has freed us up to think and rethink everything, to challenge ourselves and each other. There’s nothing incoherent about accepting that we don’t know it all, about living the questions rather than insisting that we have all the answers. It means recognising that Quakers are still seekers on a continuing journey, not finders at the end of the road. There’s no going back.[13]

In the latter account, Quakerism is a protective umbrella under which a variety of beliefs can be grown and fostered. Such Friends want diversity, but like their theist counterparts, never stop talking about belief. Thus, despite all appearances, we can see that the common ground between modelist and theistic camps is the centrality of belief in understanding the nature of religious community. Yet such tacit agreement is, I suggest, the root of the tensions and unease we have observed in Meetings.  The crucial mistake made by the positions surveyed above is that all camps assume that the most significant elements of religious identity revolve around maintenance of ‘belief’. This gives the misleading impression that if only we could find the right hypothesis, the right settlement, the right form of words, all discord would vanish. Yet, attempts so far in this direction have been fruitless. The attempt to listen and include every shade of opinion has only magnified the sense of fracture in our Meetings. Why is this? Because Quakerism, like any other religious community, does not remain cohesive because of belief.  Something much deeper draws religious communities together; the notion of a shared story.

Deconstructing the Terrain of Belief: Durkheim and Douglas

In 1912, the French Sociologist Emile Durkheim published his seminal work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. The study’s compelling attempts to categorise the essential structure and function of ‘religion’ across human culture still provides a compelling framework for contemporary social theorists and anthropologists. What is perhaps less appreciated is the extent to which this text provides a snapshot of the ways in which the Western secular intelligentsia viewed religious phenomena at the beginning of the last century. A central element of Durkheim’s picture was the view that religious communities sprung primarily from beliefs about the status of holy and ordinary things. If we want to understand religious institutions and practices, it follows that we must first understand the claims which animate them. As Durkheim summarises this position: ‘[a] religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.’[14] According to this account, religious communities are ‘bound together by their common beliefs’[15] externally expressed through shared rites. While Durkheim understood that in most cases religious life consists of a diversity of ceremonies, taboos, and symbols, such structures are always derivative from an initial faith.[16]

Image result for Emile durkheim It is this Durkheimian model of religious life which explicitly structures contemporary debates over Quaker identity. Yet, ever since Durkheim articulated this theory of religious origins, there has always been a sense that something was missing from this overly belief-driven account of religion. In the rising tide of modern secularism, the only things Durkheim could see that were distinctive about the religious was their tendency to say religious things and performed sacred rites. Yet such a description of religiosity ignores other things which keep people in religious communities. The great disciple of Durkheim, the anthropologist Mary Douglas drew out some of the limitations of her mentor’s approach in her 1971 study Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. At the centre of the book is the claim that religious belief should not be reduced to primary beliefs and their derivative manifestations. While Douglas thought it true that rituals were often sustained by beliefs, it was equally true that the content of beliefs were often sustained by the symbols contained and encoded in ritual practices.  As Douglas notes of the dynamics of the Catholic Eucharist:

The condensation of symbols in the Eucharist is staggering in its range and depth. The white circle of bread encompasses symbolically the cosmos, the whole history of the Church and more, since it goes from the bread offering of Melchisidech, to Calvary and the Mass. It unites the body of each worshipper to the body of the faithful. In this compass it expresses themes of atonement, nourishment, and renewal.[17]

In this vein, when we observe the Mass, we are neither seeing a straightforward manifestation of ritual through belief or belief through ritual, but a set of symbols which operate prior to either ritual or belief. This is a hidden structure, made up of words, images and assumptions, which allows a group to structure their experience into a coherent vision of the world, which Douglas called a ‘cosmology’. Summarising the concept, Douglas suggests:

We should try to think of cosmology as a set of categories that are in use. It is like lenses which bring into focus and make bearable the manifold challenge of experience. It is not a hard carapace which the tortoise has to carry for ever, but something very flexible and easily disjointed. Spare parts can be fitted and adjustments made without much trouble. Occasionally a major overhaul is necessary to bring the obsolete set of views into focus with new times and new company. This is conversion.[18]

So, the question for contemporary British Quakers is not, ‘what do we believe’? But, rather, ‘what are the foundational words, images and stories that bind us together’? In Douglas’ terms, we should ask, what is our cosmology? While such a carapace cannot be easily described (just as it would be hard for a fish to describe water), we can begin the process of articulation by being attentive to the words and symbols in our Quaker tradition. This process (as Douglas’ own comments imply) is not about pickling Quaker identity into any permanent configuration but is about starting with the rich bed of resources which are implicit in the Quaker way of seeing, speaking, and relating. Think of these distinctive markers of Quaker identity (our words for God and social action, for instance) as miniature maps, which induct us into a particular interpretation of the world. Living out this interpretation is more important than a series of abstract questions about God. A satisfactory vision of God is never going to come about by adopting some over-arching theory or belief. But a deep coherence may arise if we become attentive to the language and stories Quakerism uses to illustrate (perhaps we should say picture) what God is for us. This process has many dimensions, but the most crucial one it seems to me, is about recovering a sense that our words and stories come from somewhere and have the capacity to lead us somewhere else. It is about saying, ‘I am a Quaker because this shared story calls to the very depth of my life—it fits the pieces of experience together, it shapes, it heals, it clarifies’.

The Challenge of This ApproachImage result for Margaret fell

Viewing our present Quaker condition from this cosmological point of view can be challenging for a great many Friends occupying different places on the so-called spectrum, not least because it challenges the language of both belief and or belief-diversity as central to Quakerism. For non-theist and Universalist Friends, this perspective may seem troubling because it implies a robust recovery of some shared Quaker story. Might that exclude some people and alienate others? Not necessarily, although it might generate some hard questions which in turn force us to say what we are. Let’s be clear what it is we are talking about here. Make no bones about it, a shared story requires a shared language and that language, is, for the most part, Christian. So many of our fundamental words and images are emergent properties from the New Testament story. The Quaker story cannot be fully appreciated without this context. This is not in itself excluding of Universalist or non-theist Quakers, but it should raise thorny questions for those Friends who may be actively hostile to the centrality of Christian stories or language within Quakerism. What then binds such Friends to the lives of other Friends and to the Quaker tale? What is the centre of their shared Quaker life? Does the following Advice still speak to such Friends?

Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way. (1.02)

If such words leave some Friends cold or troubled, what might be getting in the way of working with such language? Baggage, intellectual scruples, past pain, our Meetings? But again, let’s be clear what is being talked about. The importance of Christianity argued for here, should not imply adopting a rigid set of beliefs (the historicity of the Resurrection, the Ascension, or the virgin birth) for surely then we are into the barren world of notions. What good would a creed or theology do us unless we were able to live in its words, and swim in its possibilities? This has always been central to the Quaker call. Think of Margret Fell and her earth-shattering experience in Ulverston Church in 1652:

  You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’ This opened me so that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly, we were all wrong. So, I sat me down in my pew again, and cried bitterly. And I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves’… I saw it was the truth, and I could not deny it; and I did as the apostle saith, I ‘received the truth in the love of it’. And it was opened to me so clear that I had never a tittle in my heart against it; but I desired the Lord that I might be kept in it, and then I desired no greater portion. (Quaker Faith and Practice, 19.07)

Interestingly, Fell or Fox don’t say ditch the story (they use the language of the Scriptures), but neither do they say merely copy the story. Quakerism is not some hollow re-enactment fundamentalism. They say live the story, love it, embrace it. Let your manner of life follow from this. In this highly practical mode, the religious life isn’t primarily about believing things (if by belief we mean assenting intellectually to this or that proposition or statement). It isn’t even about protecting belief, so we don’t step on people’s toes. It is about letting the symbols of the shared story into one’s life, trusting that they will deliver their ‘fruit’, in meaning, in purpose, in depth. Belief of all kinds might follow later from this kind of narrative assent, but that isn’t the most important thing about the concept of a shared Quaker story. What matters the most is the ability of Friends to see and hear one another in ways which are rooted and shared. We must get beyond personal models and get into the habit of sitting under a more expansive canopy. This is a far richer starting-point than the one offered by some belief-focused Quaker Theists, or indeed some self-identified Non-Theists. It is not ‘theism’ or belief pluralism we need but a fresh and lively appreciation of the narratives that help us ‘be Quaker’. This is about Quaker literacy and not Quaker literalism. To non-theists and universalists, I would say, don’t simply dismiss, translate, or minimize the Christian stories and words that sit behind our Book of Discipline. Sit with them, test them, speak them, pull them apart, but don’t ignore them. Let them impinge your imagination, your heart, your thoughts. Let them work their alchemy in you, generating new ways of seeing and knowing.  To self-identified Quaker Theists, I would say, don’t reduce Quakerism to ‘transcendence’ or the defense of God- language. Realize that we are invited into a whole cosmology, a living way of knowing and experiencing. We cannot argue away difference, but we can find unity if we sit on the same symbolic ground. If British Quakerism is to be more than a storehouse of competing beliefs, or a therapeutic group on a Sunday morning, we must get beyond belief and start telling the Quaker story together.

[1] Simon Jenkins, “The Quakers are right. We don’t need God”, May 4th 2018, The Guardian

[2] Jenkins, “The Quakers are right. We don’t need God”, May 4th 2018, The Guardian

[3] Letters: ‘Debate on ‘God language’ doesn’t mean all Quakers are losing faith’, 7 May 2018, The Guardian,

[4] ‘Debate on ‘God language’ doesn’t mean all Quakers are losing faith’, 7 May 2018, The Guardian,

[5] Kevin Redfern, ‘Doing Our Quaker Business’, in Searching the Depths: Essays in Search of Quaker Identity, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1998), p. 77.

[6] Redfern, ‘Doing Our Quaker Business’, in Searching the Depths: Essays in Search of Quaker Identity, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1998), p. 83.

[7] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, p. 2.

[8] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, p. 15.

[9] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, ibid

[10] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, ibid

[11] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, ibid

[12] Tony Philpott, From Christian to Quaker: A Spiritual Journey from Evangelical Christian to Universalist Quaker, (Winchester: Quaker Universalist Group Publishing, 2013), p. 240

[13] David Boulton. ‘Diversity’, in The Friend, 9 April 2010, [Accessed 18 May 2018]

[14] Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Carlos Cossman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 46

[15] Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Carlos Cossman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 42

[16] ‘Sue Stedman Jones, ‘The Concept of Belief in Elementary Forms’, in On Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life, ed. N.J. Allen, W.S.F. Pickering, W. Watts Miller, (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 53

[17] Mary Douglas, Natural Symbol Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, (London: Routledge, 1971), p. 49-50

[18] Douglas, Natural Symbols, p.158

Body Theology: Or Why Only Eucharistic Action Makes Us True to Ourselves

This post starts with a big claim: Good political theology involves doing body theology. To reflect on the theological significance of a polity means reflecting on what makes up a political community; not merely a priori individuals, but needful bodies, in need of care, love and shelter. Politics at its most human concerns the transfer of resources in relation to these frail vessels of blood and bone. The deep question of political order is: which bodies are to be included? And which excluded? Yet in our modern age we are in danger in forgetting this fundamental reality. We are becoming increasingly obsessed with politics as a series of technological fixes to structural problems, rather than politics as relation. We start believing that we don’t need each other; that in some strange way individual human intellects can find ways of guaranteeing individual salvation; through the disembodied world of the internet or in perpetual design and re-design of our identity (as so prevalent among the post-modernists).

Related imageModern state-craft is increasingly driven by abstract measures like economic productivity and quarterly GDP, without considering for a moment the actual conditions in which people live. Politics is stuck in a Platonic realm of Ideas where bodies are left behind. We start believing that somehow, we can live apart from nature and one another; seeking ever more spectacular modes of control over environment; so much so that we begin to forget the bonds of physicality and sentiment which tie us together. What happens when selves are cut off from the deeper commitments of all-embracing love and justice for God-given bodies that Christian theology presupposes? Two compelling manifestos against this body-less cult of the technical and abstract are found in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  At the heart of both texts, we find examples of what happens when the human polis becomes trapped by transgressive Promethean fantasies. Both protagonists are potent symbols of the pursuit of power without responsibility and knowledge without morality. Marlowe’s Faustus revels in magical arts delighting in the prospect of making ‘men live eternally, or being dead, raise them to life again’ or being ‘on earth as Jove is in the sky’ while Frankenstein seeks through the pages of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus the perfection of the human condition.  Looking back over his tragic life Frankenstein defines his supreme obsession:

     Wealth was an inferior object, but what glory would attend the discovery if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death! Nor were these my only visions. The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfilment of which I most eagerly sought; and if my incantations were always unsuccessful, I attributed the failure rather to my own inexperience and mistake than to a want of skill or fidelity in my instructors. [CH 2.]

Image result for doctor faustus marloweWhat is so dangerous about these passions is the way in which they defy any suggestion of relation. In Faustus and Frankenstein human beings are set free from obligation, reciprocity and need for empathy, and instead embark on the complete mastery of world and self. Emblematic of this denial of duty and empathy is the rejection of the integrity of the living, breathing body. It is by and through an appreciation of our body, our feelings, and our senses that we learn to appreciate others. In the pain and pleasure of our own bodies we begin to recognise the pleasure and pain of others. In our own finitude we see our need for others to complete us. The finite body is never self-sufficient but is always reaching out for sustenance and companionship. It is no surprise therefore that both Faustus and Frankenstein, in projects stained with megalomania, find relational embodiment distasteful. More important than reciprocity or love are the promulgation of abstract ideas of power and control. It is significant that when Faustus signs the deed to his body and soul one of the clauses reads, ‘that Faustus may be spirit in form and substance’. Later, when the demon Mephistopheles confronts Faustus with the spiritual consequences of his bargain with Lucifer, on losing his body he exclaims ‘but what of that?’  Yet, in Marlowe’s tale it is the act of giving up his body which ultimately damns Faustus to eternal perdition. According to Thomist Theology (with which Marlowe seemed familiar) a spirit without a body is nothing but a demon and by its lack of embodiment is unable to repent. Bodies are not merely vessels which carry the soul; the body is that creature which entices the spirit towards its final rest in God. By making a pact with Satan, Faustus denies the saving potential of the body, to his eternal cost.

Frankenstein’s denial of the body takes the form of what the Feminist Mary Daly has described in terms of a necrophilia fantasy.  Frankenstein’s monster, made from the disjointed parts of corpses, turns the human body into an object for Frankenstein’s intellectual pleasures. The body is not a source of relationship, but merely a means to an end of consolidating power. As Daly notes, ’The insane desire for power, the madness of boundary violation is the mark of necrophiliacs, who sense the lack of soul/spirit/life-loving principle with themselves and therefore try to invade and kill all spirit, substituting conglomerates of corpses’. In the passivity of the corpse, Daly sees Frankenstein’s lust for control satisfied, replacing his need for relationship and vulnerability. Yet, Frankenstein’s denial of the centrality of relationships in the creation, but also in the abandonment of the creature comes back to haunt him. Left alone and estranged from human society it becomes hateful and decides to take revenge on Frankenstein by murdering both his brother and his wife. To Shelley, as with Marlowe, to deny one’s own finitude is to bring tragedy upon oneself. To refuse to accept the inevitability of the human condition, marred in death and limitation is to court disaster.

Image result for sacred hospitalityHow can we get beyond this deadening quest for power? The answer is in our practice as Christians. The ecclesia begins its deliberation on the meaning of the human, not through an appeal to a technology of perfection and invulnerability, but by taking seriously the lessons we learn in the acts of giving and receiving hospitality. At the core of such acts Christians discern that humans are fundamentally needful creatures, in need of care, consideration, and company. Our bodies cry out for tenderness and relation, our faces call for recognition. This logic of gift (embodied by Eucharistic sharing) exaggerates these bodily realities by stripping us of all our masks, pretensions, and defence mechanisms. What matters at the table of fellowship is not our status, nor our resistance to failure, but our longing for consideration and affirmation. Our presence at the table is not dependent upon our ability to stand immune from the vicissitudes of life, but based on our ability to receive, to meet to understand. For Quakers the embryo of such an embodied politics begins with our worship together. By opening ourselves to the possibility of being powerless in the boundless presence of the Inward Light, we are offered a mirror which attends to our true condition.  We are not meant to live apart (struggling for some private paradise) but seek a deep solidarity with each frail person. We live most faithfully (most humanly) when the cry of another shatters our illusions of control and stability. This is the deep meaning of the Query: “Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ”. To be ordered thus, is to live in the shadow of the bodily One who suffers alongside, never from above. To be shaped by such a Spirit is to become vulnerable in the service of others.

The Shrinking Story: The Changing Meaning of ‘That of God in everyone’

The ‘That of God’ Problem

[If] you know not a principle within, which is of God, to guide you to wait upon God, ye are still in your own knowledge…. But waiting all upon God in that which is of God, you are kept open to receive the teachings of God.  (George Fox).

The phrase ‘that of God in everyone’ is now so beloved among Liberal Quakers that it has become something of a shibboleth. In its orbit are cozy intuitions of human dignity, equality, and inherent worth. But what does such a statement mean? Who or what is the God in the phrase, and how is deity manifest ‘in everyone’? According to Lewis Benson, in order to answer these questions, we have to place the phrase in the context of George Fox’s understanding of the following text from Romans: ‘Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them (Romans 1:19 KJB). What did Fox think Paul was getting at? As Benson puts it, for Fox “That of God in everyone” is not a statement of values, much less an exploration of human faculties (‘some human means of knowing like reason…. or moral law within’) but something which God uses in the conscience, to draw creatures back into communication with Deity. To posit that God is ‘manifest’ in people is fundamentally about the way God is made known to human beings. It is not an anthropological statement about human dignity or equality per se. As Benson elaborates ‘that of God’ refers to ‘seekinging counsel of the Creator. The Creator imparts his wisdom to man. This is not human wisdom, but the voice and wisdom of the Creator. ‘(“That of God in Every Man” — What Did George Fox Mean by It?). But as Benson would doubtless remind us, when early Friends spoke of ‘God’ and ‘wisdom’ they were speaking in a definite Christ-shaped tone. The God that reached out within the human self, was not any old transcendental presence, but a God with a given character and story.  This is the unknown God Paul proclaims in Athens:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands… we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.  In the past, God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead”’ (Acts 17:24-31).

Image result for quaker worshipSuch a Spirit is the God of the whole world but was made manifest in the first-century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. And what about wisdom? As a diligent reader of Scripture, Fox understood the language of wisdom in two interlocking senses. The first is the ‘holy wisdom’ of God which had ordered the world in the beginning (Proverbs 8:22), the second was the foolish ‘wisdom of God’ revealed in the crucified Christ (1 Corinthians 1:25). Fox understood both forms of wisdom to be the work and expression of a single reality: God’s son who sustains ‘all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:3). So to speak to ‘that of God in everyone’ meant to draw people into the Life and Power of that creative yet crucified wisdom.In the first instance, people are drawn into such a Life through an awareness of their own failings and inadequacies. People are invited into the crucified wisdom by allowing all that is blocking the Spirit to be crucified within them. Thus, when Fox spoke of the Light of Christ, he meant something akin to a searchlight which would pick up the contours of our injured selves and bring them to account. As George Fox put it in The Journal:

But oh, then did I see my troubles, trials, and temptations more than ever I had done! As the light appeared, all appeared that is out of the light, darkness, death, temptations, the unrighteous, the ungodly; all was manifest and seen in the light….And then the spiritual discerning came into me, by which I did discern my own thoughts, groans, and sighs, and what it was that did veil me, and what it was that did open me.
What Paul had described as ‘the wrath of God…revealed from heaven against all ungodliness’ (Romans 1:18-19) was felt in Fox’s own life. But instead of breaking him, such an interior realization freed him from both shame and inadequacy.Once he had owned what he had done and what he had looked like before God, he was able to begin a new chapter in his life. God had been his judge, his comforter, then finally his healer. But today for many Liberal British Quakers to declare that kind of ‘God in everyone’ is dangerously specific, if not horrifyingly evangelical. Steven Davison in his Flaming Sword blog argues persuasively that while early Friends used ‘that of God’ in the context of a bigger account of ‘sin’, ‘eternity’ and ‘salvation’ Liberal Quaker theology uses the phrase as a shorthand for transcendence and a replacement for a traditional soul-language now viewed as problematic by many Liberal Friends. Instead of worrying about the Pauline language of repentance, Liberal Friends are more concerned with inward mystical experience and contact with the ineffable. ‘That of God’ becomes a way of expressing the capacity of such contact. Steven charts this process of replacement in the work of Rufus Jones. He writes:

Both a mystic and a scholar, he sought to understand the mystical experience, so he studied it. And in that study, especially his study of Neoplatonism, he found the notion of the divine spark. He also wanted to place his own mystical experience in both the mystical traditions of the world (or at least, of the West) and in his own tradition of Quakerism. He accomplished this by defining “that of God” as a divine spark after the Neoplatonists, even though George Fox never had any such idea in mind when he used the phrase. Thus, was liberal Quaker “theology” born.

 The Implications of Liberal Quaker Theology

Image result for quaker worshipWhat did this shift mean for the subsequent development of Liberal Quaker reflection? The first thing to be said is that Jones’ equation of ‘that of God’ with the Neo-Platonic divine spark, subtly shifted the Quaker message away from Fox’s claim that ‘there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition ‘, to ‘there is an indefinite Deity who lives in you already’.  One thinks of the roundly impersonal God of Stoicism or the shadowy Atman of the Upanishads. What is lacking in such an approach is religious specificity. Such a God demands nothing specific, loves nothing concrete, calls us to nothing, other than the ‘experience’ of that which cannot be named.  It is nearly impossible to imagine such a divine spirit declaring as Yahweh does in the Hebrew Scriptures: “For the sake of Jacob My servant, And Israel My chosen one, I have also called you by your name; I have given you a title of honor Though you have not known Me’ (Isaiah 45:4). Impossible because the Platonic God of Jones is not tied to history, beyond the personal histories of those who look within. The domain of the divine spark is not nations and communities, but hearts and individuals. Here the God with a story is jettisoned in favour of a universal mystical Power which is inherent in all people (making everyone a little bit divine). After Jones, it was possible to say (along with some reconstructed Sufis and Theosophists) that Quakerism was just part of a generic perennial wisdom which was the property of all wise and good spiritual seekers. In this way, all people, were understood as Quaker already.

Image result for quaker worshipFor many Liberal Friends, this vision of radical inclusion is a badge of their innermost identity. The language of ‘mysticism’ in this context is deeply attractive because it does not bind people to any particular community, set of images or sacred stories. Such universalism helps many Quakers (some of whom have been wounded by the exclusivities of other Churches) to constitute themselves as a loving and supportive community. Yet such inclusion is not without its costs for the coherence of the Quaker Way. By refusing to affirm the centrality of a formative story (including a God who demands, loves, and forgives) Quaker worship loses much of its radical power. Without a God with a story, our gatherings can become whatever we want them to be (a time for personal prayer, an escape from the week, a form of meditation or reflection). While some may regard such liberality as freeing, without the God with a story at the core of why we wait, there is a danger that our Worship disintegrates into a personal rather than shared enterprise. We start investing the silence with a kind of protective solipsism, the sense that this is ‘our time’ rather than the gift of a definitive gift-giver.  We keep on using old Quaker words (words which suggest a substantial story) but we have forgotten where the words come from and/or how to fit them together. In such an amorphous state, it is easy to throw away hard readings of what we do in Worship. We might relegate the old Quaker language about the Light convicting us of sin (or revealing our darkness) for something more affirming, less difficult, and more malleable. Reflecting on the coziness of present ‘that of God’ language Steven suggests:

[The] advantage of…that-of-God is that it’s not scary. The idea of a soul with an afterlife is scary; scary as hell. Who wouldn’t trade divine judgment for a nice little divine spark? This fear helps to explain why, after decades of relying more and more on this little phrase, we have yet to elaborate on what “that of God in everyone” actually means. The vaguer it is, the nicer it is.

If this description is right, it seems clear that Liberal Quakerism is increasingly good at supporting and affirming individuals, but less good at binding us together as Friends.

Recovering Heavenly Worship

So this leads us to a tough question. Is Worship about being inclusive and nice or is it about something else? Certainly, our Worship together should be guided by love, but does such affection mean that being Quaker must be infinitely elastic?  In protective vagueness, we may end up losing the sense of what we sit in silence for. Without facing things that are thorny, difficult, or even a bit scary it’s easy to float along, feeling that we are not accountable to anything except our own sense of inward wellbeing.  Yet in stressing affirmation over more troubling languages of healing, change, and transformation, we may render our Quaker Way shrunken and directionless. Mystical experiences are nothing but pleasant spiritual highs unless they are tied to some goal or discipline which structures them. We do this through our pattern of Worship, but also through the words we use to express our Quaker Way (Testimony, Light, Spirit Peace). Each piece of shared Quaker-speak is a reminder that Worship is not a private possession, but part of a coherent narrative, with a shared spiritual reality at its core.  Do we dare to be part of this? Or are we content with rather prosaic and half-formed notions of ‘personal spiritual journeys’? When early Quakers sat in worship together, they saw themselves as doing more than a therapeutic exercise or a kind of extended prayer-practice. They believed that in the silence they would encounter the cosmic Christ who calls out to them to join the heavenly wedding feast: ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’ (Revelation 3:20). When Meeting began, they understood themselves as sat in that Eternal God-space beyond the reach of the everyday world. As the prolific Quaker polemicist Francis Howgill attempted to express this new reality:

O beloved Ones, who are the Children of my eternal Father, who have eaten at his Table, and drunken of the new Wine in the Kingdom of God, who are nourished and dandled upon the Lap of everlasting Love, who suck at the Breasts of everlasting Consolation; you Beauty is comely, I am ravished, I am filled, I am filled with Love to you all, I am sick of Love, your Beauty hath ravished my Heart:… and in him I meet you, and leave you in his Arms; I lye down with you in the bosom of eternal Love, Life, Peace, Joy and Rest forever, where none can make us afraid. [ix] (Howgill 1655)

Image result for Lamb book of revelationTo worship God in this ecstatic sense is to be taken to the heavenly court where the saints and angels praise the Lamb.  What does such imagery tell us? We do not worship just for ourselves, but for the whole community of worshippers throughout all time. We worship with and for a creation which is infused with God’s promise of healing. In this shape, Quaker silence is not merely a spiritual retreat, it is our Eucharist when we celebrate the love of a God who feeds and guides us. The royal road to such spiritual food is in confronting our wounds and wrongs (the things which need care and mending). By allowing ourselves to be embraced by the Spirit, God’s  Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life. Here vague mysticism gives way to a meaning and direction not our own. Grace is all about being carried along by that. What a scary and awesome thought!  Of course, not every individual Meeting for Worship will be equally earth-shattering, but the point is that our Worship is made for radical transformation, embedded within the story of a God who wishes to turn the world upside down.  The invitation is always there if we wish to take it up. We do our individual spiritual journeys a deep disservice when we replace this cosmic vision of ‘that of God’ with an insular model of personal religion which excludes the possibility of a spiritual path with shared words, images, and focus. But perhaps the scariest aspect of recovering this approach to our Quakerism is that it places on us the responsibility to articulate and share the feast we are part of.  If weary Friends detect a whiff of evangelicalism in these remakes, they are right to do so. Calling back the God with a story to the very heart of our Worship means retrieving the Good News the phrase ‘that of God in everyone’ is intended to express.  This doesn’t mean we all must believe, or indeed say the same thing, but it does mean we need more trust in our Quaker-speak, including our language around the moral life and God. It isn’t about policing or conformity, but about blending our story with the story of the Quaker Way, allowing our hearts to open to all that has been revealed. Such trust will, with a bit of luck, help us to get back to specifics and shake off the story-less deity of Jones.

Once we have climbed out of personal cocoons new possibilities for being Quaker emerge. When we keep everything vague we have no reason to tell our Quaker story well (we only need to be convinced of our own stories). But when we discover a shared way of seeing through a narrative-filled Presence, we can do more than simply speak for ourselves (a common tendency at Quaker Quest evenings) but sustain and pass on shared treasures. This isn’t about megaphones, posters, or even individual moral perfection, it is about allowing ourselves to place weight behind the shared story we use. As 1 Peter defines the task: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15).  This posture comes with risks of course. If not everyone is a Quaker already, then we come to the world with a distinctive story to tell, a story not everyone will find easy or palatable. But then, declaring hope is never easy midst cultures of quick fixes and cynicism. But before we go out into the world and start passing on our deep hope, Friends need to become accustomed to this practice of communal hope-telling.  Only then will we discover the full import of these famous words belonging to George Fox:

In the power of life and wisdom, and dread of the Lord God of life, and heaven, and earth, dwell; that in the wisdom of God over all ye may be preserved, and be a terror to all the adversaries of God, and a dread, answering that of God in them all, spreading the Truth abroad, awakening the witness, confounding deceit, gathering up out of transgression into the life, the covenant of light and peace with God……[Be] patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone (Quaker Faith and Practice, 19:30).

William Penn Among the Stoics

William Penn and the Stoics

William Penn remains one of early Quakerism’s most vibrant thinkers. He not only applied Quaker principles to the tricky business of statecraft but synthesized the charismatic spirituality of the early 1640s with the intellectual impulses of the Restoration’s cultural elite. Among the most influential ingredients of this fusion was the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. Rooted in the rich intellectual melting-pot of 4th century Athens, the Stoic School taught that the path to greatest happiness involved a life of contemplation, simplicity, and sobriety.  At the heart of these commitments was a firm belief that deep within each person there subsisted a divine spark of Reason which connected each creature to a Supreme Being.  We might say that Stoics felt called to live an ‘accompanied life’. A Stoic sage might be deprived of his possessions, thrown in prison, or be facing death, but he was never distant from the true non-material basis of his happiness, that is, the temple of the heart, where each person meets God. Thus, in a tone, familiar to many contemporary Quakers, the Stoic teacher Epictetus reflects in his Discourses: ‘When you close your doors and make darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your genius is within. And what need have they of light to see what you are doing?’ (Book I, Ch. 14).

What did this ‘God within’ mean for Stoic attitudes about the outside world? Such an imminent theology rendered the universe a single city, with each member of that universal community holding equal citizenship. This latter belief generated a fascinating flip side to Stoic inwardness. While Stoic teachers emphasized the power of solitude and moderation, the best of the Stoics were actively involved in public affairs and the education of fellow citizens. For his sins, the Stoic sage Seneca the Younger (4 BCE– CE 65) was tutor to the troubled Roman emperor Nero, while Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) was himself a Roman emperor (one of Rome’s five Good Emperors) at a time when Rome’s imperial frontiers were beginning to crumble. While his rule could have come at an easier time, his reign is generally remembered by Latin historians as one of solid government, guided by moderation and justice. As the  Victorian critic, Matthew Arnold observed: ‘Marcus Aurelius has, for us moderns, this great superiority in interest over Saint Louis or Alfred, that he lived and acted in a state of society modern by its essential characteristics, in an epoch akin to our own, in a brilliant centre of civilization.’ These examples tell us much about the Stoic character. To be a sage was to live in the world (contribute to the building up of institutions)  but not ‘of the world’. Outward trouble could not blacken the pearl of the soul because the truly philosophical personality was always fed by deeper things than the lure of worldly success.

Image result for William PennEver the scholar, Penn took over this tradition in Christianised form, arguing that Quakers (‘primitive Christians revived’) were the true heirs of Stoicism. While never wavering from the orthodox contention that Jesus Christ was the supreme source of human salvation, like the Church Fathers, Penn argued that seeds of Divine Truth were scattered in the surviving works of pagan authors, including the Stoic sages. What particularly impressed Penn was the Stoic fusion of morality and cosmology. The Stoics (like the early Christians) had believed in a providential universe, in which each event was part of a preordained plan, devised by supra-natural law-giver. Virtue and life were interwoven, in such a vision, so that the man who lived by God’s laws, also lived in accordance with nature. As Penn notes in his 1673 apologetic Christian Quaker, the early Stoic Cleanthes is worthy of praise because he taught that ‘human happiness and virtue depends upon the close correspondence of the mortal mind with the divine will that governs the universe’ (VII). At the forefront of Penn’s mind was probably Cleanthes’ surviving hymn to Zeus, a text which beautifully expresses the Stoic doctrine of providence. Below is an extract:

Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Word of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.
This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God’s universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.

What did Penn get from these sources? Primarily they enabled him to place Quakerism in the context of a long spiritual odyssey. Per this expansive reading of sacred history, Quakerism (as it appeared in late Stuart England) was not merely a provincial English invention, but the reappearance of an ancient wisdom revealed to all godly people in every epoch. Thus, when Seneca suggests in his Epistles that ‘a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian’ (Ep. 41.) Penn suggests that the philosopher is talking about the Light Friends experience in worship (Christian Quaker, XII). How did such pronouncements impact Penn’s Quakerism? Probably the most noteworthy footprint of this synthetic attitude can be observed in a little text of Penn’s called Some Fruits of Solitude (1682). Originally composed as an explanatory epistle for the education of Penn’s children, the text is constructed in the style of Stoic moral aphorisms, with highly reminiscent reflections on moderation and the virtues of the quiet life. In a passage (echoing Seneca’s recommendation against spending time in crowds) Penn writes:

The Country Life is to be preferr’d; for there we see the Works of God; but in Cities little else but the Works of Men: And the one makes a better Subject for our Contemplation than the other…. God’s Works declare his Power, Wisdom, and Goodness; but Man’s Works, for the most part, his Pride, Folly, and Excess. …The Country is both the Philosopher’s Garden and his Library, in which he Reads and Contemplates the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God… A Sweet and Natural Retreat from Noise and Talk, and allows opportunity for Reflection, and gives the best Subjects for it. (Fruits, 220-226).

 Some Stoic Texts

Image result for StoicismWhat significance might such philosophical connections have for Quakers today? Instead of offering further commentary, I want to share a few Stoic texts, which encapsulate the deep well of wisdom from which Penn drew. By coming to appreciate these sources, we can come, not only to appreciate these ‘Quakers before Quakerism’, but also understand the ways in which our own Quaker story liberally borrows from the stories of others.

Peace: Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Equality: But you are a superior thing; you are a portion separated from the deity; you have in yourself a certain portion of him. Why then are you ignorant of your own noble descent? Why do you not know whence you came? will you not remember when you are eating, who you are who eat and whom you feed? When you are in conjunction with a woman, will you not remember who you are who do this thing? When you are in social intercourse, when you are exercising yourself, when you are engaged in discussion, know you not that you are nourishing a god, that you are exercising a god? Wretch, you are carrying about a god with you, and you know it not. Do you think that I mean some God of silver or of gold, and external? You carry him within yourself, and you perceive not that you are polluting him by impure thoughts and dirty deeds. And if an image of God were present, you would not dare to do any of the things which you are doing: but when God himself is present within and sees all and hears all, you are not ashamed of thinking such things and doing such things, ignorant as you are of your own nature and subject to the anger of God. Epictetus, Discourses

Image result for Stoa Truth: Don’t concern yourself with your neighbours’ affairs or anything that distracts you from fidelity to Reason, it would be a loss of opportunity for some other task. Habituate your thinking so that if asked what you are thinking you could always respond honestly and without hesitation thus proving all your thoughts are simple and kindly and the type of thoughts that keep you unsullied and impervious to evil. You will be a competitor in the greatest of all contests, the struggle against passion’s mastery. And only concerns himself with the opinions of men who live in accord with Nature, all others he reminds himself of their characters and company they keep and their approval has no value for him. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Simplicity: Repellent attire, unkempt hair, slovenly beard, open scorn of silver dishes, a couch on the bare earth, and any other perverted forms of self-display, are to be avoided.  The mere name of philosophy, however quietly pursued, is an object of sufficient scorn; and what would happen if we should begin to separate ourselves from the customs of our fellow-men?  Inwardly, we ought to be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society.  Do not wear too fine, nor yet too frowzy, a toga.  One needs no silver plate, encrusted, and embossed in solid gold; but we should not believe the lack of silver and gold to be proof of the simple life.  Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve…. Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for penance, and we may perfectly well be plain and neat at the same time. This is the mean of which I approve; our life should observe a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of the world at large; all men should admire it, but they should understand it also. Well then, shall we act like other men?  Shall there be no distinction between ourselves and the world? “Yes, a very great one; let men find that we are unlike the common herd if they look closely. If they visit us at home, they should admire us. rather than our household appointments, he is a great man who uses earthenware dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were earthenware. From Seneca’s Epistles

Final Reflections: The Dignity of Contemplation

Doubtless, a closer appreciation of the relationship between Stoicism and Quakerism can still do for us what it did for Penn. Stoicism might help more insular Friends out of their spiritual shells a bit. By participating a generous dialogue with Stoic thought, we can set ourselves in a wider spiritual context, deeply ‘rooted in Christianity but open to new light’.  Stoicism teaches us that we are not alone on the spiritual quest and that wisdom has many watering holes.  But a revaluation of the role of Stoicism in Penn’s religious thought does something else as well. Today many British Quakers are orientated towards action out in the world through campaigns for peace and social justice.All this work is doubtless to the good, but there is always the danger that ‘good works culture’ leaves out vital spiritual skills that secretly sustain our witness.

Such is the frenzy of activity that some Friends find it increasingly hard to stand back and appreciate what Penn saw as ‘the fruits of solitude’. We have forgotten that introspection and self-examination (practiced by Friends in their early journals) are not spiritual luxuries, but necessary ingredients for a balanced Quaker life. For an activity to be meaningful it should be foregrounded in a prayerful attitude which is open to uncovering hidden depths in any given situation. Our work will not be useful to ourselves or others if it is ill-conceived or ill-directed. We need a stable base of composure in order to act properly. But on the back of this, Penn and Stoics teach us a further lesson. There is even dignity in contemplation (even of a highly philosophical variety, to which some ‘practical’ Friends are deeply averse). As the Stoics believed and Penn affirmed, there is no inherent contradiction between the discipline of introspection and public service. After all, it is by going within that we can see more clearly the shape of our lives and those places where the Spirit moves or is being denied. It is by stopping and dwelling in a state of thoughtful stillness that we can find the renewed energy to out into the world armed with our Testimonies. A life devoid of reflection is likely to render us reactive to events, rather than truly responsive to them. In such a disoriented state, we are liable to mistake immediate concerns for non-negotiable duties. Anyone who has had the misfortune of stumbling across my Facebook Page over the last few days can attest to this confusion. What with money and job worries (combined with Brexit, and Trump) I have been more than a little shrill.  Sometimes has been a genuine challenge for me to keep a sense of inner calm and maintain a degree of perspective. I live in one of the richest countries on earth, I am in no imminent danger of being homeless or going hungry. I have a mobile phone; a stable internet connection and friends close by. Things feel tougher than they should be, but aren’t they always? And what of the worries generated by social media and our television screens? As Marcus Aurelius puts the matter soberly: ‘Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.” It is for reasons of perspective that Advice 3 is such a precious reminder of what really matters: ‘Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and in others a habit of dependence on God’s guidance for each day? Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God’. A wise advice which I aim to follow.

Liberal Quakerism: Scripture and the God We Have Forgotten

The Liberal Quaker Problem with God

After many years of sharing tea and biscuits with fellow Quakers after meeting for Worship, I have had the misfortune of participating in roughly the same conversation at regular intervals. People ask me what I do to put bread on the table and I say ‘I’m a theologian’. They look at me quizzically and then ask, “A Christian theologian?”. I nod, and then (as if I have unlocked some post-Christian Pandora’s box) the Friend tells me how they cannot ‘believe in an old man in the sky’ and have ‘left all that behind’. I respond feebly that this is the God I have rejected as well, and more to the point, it is the God rejected by most of the Christian tradition throughout its history. But such Friends are far from convinced. Such conversations always unnerve me, despite their frequency. Is it possible that people have been alienated from the Christian tradition because they think we worship a celestial Father Christmas? More perplexing for me as a theologian is where they have got this idea from. Could bad Christian teaching be to blame? Or is it the mark of how successful the Enlightenment’s intellectual assassination of Christianity continues to be?  Wherever it’s come from, the image of an elderly and angry Jehovah is a powerful barrier between a growing number of post-Christian Quakers and the riches of the Quaker-Christian tradition. At its most intellectually acute, such a barrier is expressed in a philosophical rejection of the language of supernatural transcendence (of a God somehow apart from the laws of time and space). Friends like the non-theist David Boulton are happy to conceive of ‘God-talk as a rich, poetic, metaphorical language’ but to suggest the existence of some kind of metaphysical supreme ruler is nothing less than a violation of our reason, if not our dignity. I can well understand why such a God might irritate contemporary people. ‘Whatever God is’ say some more agnostic Friends, ‘it cannot be some celestial magician, throwing out gifts and punishments’. But the question must be asked, is this the God of Christian tradition? More to the point is this the God in our Book of Discipline which continues to be generated through the contours of this tradition? In this post, I want to do two things. Firstly, I want to show how the Christian tradition has hidden depths in its God-language which modern Quakers can embrace, and even learn to love. To this end, I look at how some ancient Christian authors (notably Augustine and Origen) have thought about the divine nature.  Instead of the celestial patriarch of secular imagination, I suggest a deeper, more challenging picture of God which emerges through their writings. Secondly, I attempt to show the ways in which the Christianity of early Friends was not about a larger-than-life human, capriciously throwing thunderbolts, or about ‘transcendence’, but rather about a deep reality working ‘behind’ and ‘within’ the world to accomplish it’s loving purpose.  Once we take this God as our starting-point, the depths of the Christian tradition become more intelligible to folk who have become unacquainted with them.

Augustine: The God Behind the World

Image result for the vision at ostiaLet’s begin with a story. In 387 CE, Augustine and his mother Monica stopped at the Roman port town of Ostia, on their journey home to North Africa. Monica’s mind had been recently put to rest. After years of spiritual searching, her son had been baptized. Augustine still had many unanswered questions about what this act would mean for his immediate future, but at least for his mother, it meant that the life of her turbulent son was now in good hands. One night after dinner, mother and son sat talking. Perhaps after a long journey both felt decidedly mellow because talk soon turned to death. What was it like to die? What lay beyond it? Would their bond endure? Suddenly something strange began to happen. The room seemed to melt away and mother and son began to sense the depths of eternity, those secrets of which they spoke. Years later, Augustine recalled the events of that night in terms that still feel vivid:

In the presence of that Truth, which you yourself are, we were asking each other what the eternal life of your saints would be like, that life which no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man. And we entered into our minds and passed beyond them so as to reach that land of never‐failing plenty where you feed Israel forever with the food of Truth, where life is that Wisdom through whom All these things were made (Confessions, 9.10.23-4l).

When the young Augustine was a restless spiritual seeker, he believed the claims of the Platonic philosophers; that the mind could ascend to God through refined forms meditation. The key religious metaphor of the Platonist was the ladder, the rungs of which the thirsty soul needed to climb if it wanted to achieve mystic union. Per this language, God functioned like an external object, with which the mind could commune. The implication behind this image was that there some intractable chasm between the creator and the created.  God was that supernatural thing ‘out there’ that it would take an inhuman act of will to reach. Yet, in a spectacular moment, Augustine realizes that something is deeply wrong with this picture. He finally understands (alongside the apostle Paul) that Christ does not merely ‘break in’ to one’s life, but is met within each believer: ‘I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered Himself up for me (Galatians 2:19-20).  In this mold, following Jesus is not about climbing some Platonic ladder to meet God (somewhere else) but about encountering God within. And once we have this encounter, what should we expect? Augustine likens the human encounter with God as being filled to the brim, a sense of being infused and encircled. Yet, no matter how much one feels infused by the Source of Being, God is never exhausted.

As Augustine hears God tell him in the Confessions: ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me’ (7.10.6). We might be able to partake in the power of God, but nothing of which we partake ever diminishes the divine nature. The notion of God being inexhaustible is the central point of Augustine’s use of the language of ‘truth’ in the Ostia passage. We are not talking about a ‘being’ in any usual sense of the word. Rather, we are talking about the conditional is-ness of every situation and event.  God is Truth for Augustine in precisely this sense. Whatever happens, God is still God. The divine cannot be negated by time or change. Every change is contained in that which we call God. As Augustine suggests in another work, even if all truth perished from the world, this world of lies would itself becomes ‘the truth’. Thus, he concludes, truth (which for Augustine is also God) is eternal and imperishable. Yet, this Is-ness is not merely an unconscious generator of facts but answers back; in the contours of the created order, in the chorus of creatures, and in the history of humanity (particularly in the joys and travails of Israel). This is the mysterious Thou of Martin Buber, that centre of meaning which is always reaching out to us, in thought, in love, and in suffering. Through such a reality says Buber, ‘The world is not divine sport, it is divine destiny. There is divine meaning in the life of the world, of man, of human persons, of you and of me’ (I and Thou, p. 66).

Making Sense of the God of Scripture

At this point, while some Friends might concede that Augustine’s God sounds like the kind of Deity they can live with, this is evidently not the God of the Bible who sends plagues on the disobedient or kills false prophets. Moreover, this is seemingly not the fleshly ‘Christian’ God of the dogmatists, who comes garbed in the life of a man and born of a virgin. But this is a hasty reaction, plainly indicative of our modern way of thinking . The God that Augustine experiences (the exhaustible fountain of truth) can be glimpsed throughout Scripture. In the Psalms (those poetic compositions of Temple worship) God is adored as that which subsists everywhere (Ps. 139), requiring no food (Psalm 50) or a fixed dwelling place on earth (Ps. 115:16). This the same God who generates the physical universe and who is eternally present (‘in him we live and move and have our being’). As God answers Moses from the fire of the burning bush: ‘I Am that I Am’ (Exodus 3:14). God, the Thou, is eternal and perpetual Is-ness. God is none other than the very possibility of identity itself. But, this potentiality is not some remote, Other-Being. It always exists in vibrant communion with every creature it sustains. It is this same reality which led the Jewish people out of slavery and became manifest in the life of Jesus (see Peter’s speech in Acts 2). As Augustine saw it, the mystic God he experienced at Ostia was none other than the God who delivers Israel and the man who was condemned to death by Pilate.It was simply impossible for Augustine to separate feelings of divine unity from real and concrete historical events. What we are dealing with here is not a ‘supernatural being’ but the mystic centre of nature itself, that which works within and behind nature, to give it meaning and a story. All well and good perhaps, but what about the Biblical God that punishes and wreaks havoc? What can  we do with this image? Surely this despotic creature is far from any ‘mystic heart of nature’ beloved of Augustine and Buber?  The creedal speech of Peter early on in the book of  Acts may help us bridge the apparent gap. In a stirring fusion of the present and the past, Peter proclaims:

Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (Acts 2:30-22).

Throughout the speech, Peter attempts to explain the history of his people through the life, death and rising of Jesus.Through an act of routine human violence, the reconciliation of human beings to God becomes possible. The created might-be meets the absolute fruition of God, making a new chapter in the world’s history possible. What did this story mean for how the first Christians understood those dark moments in Scripture where God behaves like a tyrant, inflicting violence, and punishment? Much like their learned cousins the Rabbinic Jews (who governed their God-language through a careful reading of the Prophets) early Christians governed their interpretation of problematic images through the earth-shaking reality of Jesus of Nazareth recorded in the Gospels. Through him, Christians were impelled to worship a ‘God of peace’ (Hebrews 13:20), shun violence and keep themselves pure from the punitive logic of the wider world.The God that allowed himself to die for the world would put an end to all genocides, all wars, and all massacres. In this mold, Scripture did not represent a manual but a sacred reservoir of insight, which must be read through Christ-shaped eyes. In place of a mere recitation of the doings of the sky-father, Scripture becomes a living resource, in constant dialogue with the reader, constantly illuminating the God of Israel and the Church.The capricious bolt-thrower was transformed into a humble shepherd who lays down his life for the flock. All prior violence attributed to the God of Abraham and Jacob must be understood through this supreme act of divine transformation.

Image result for Origen of alexandriaThis point is worth labouring. There is no neutral stance from which to read and understand Scripture. How one understand the text depends on which communities one belongs to. The community is the terrain in which one learns to read the text, cherish and use it.  Over the years, readers may give one another tips which deepen the understanding. Shared experience may unlock things which are arcane or complex. Sometimes we may be able to ‘pray our way through’ an obscure passage if our hearts are open to one another. Reading alone is liable to make the interpreter adopt the dominant mood of a culture, which may or may not be illuminated the God of Israel and the Church. Once we see Scripture through the lens of community, what does this mean for the God so many Liberal Friends presently reject? Chiefly, it deprives such Quakers of a straw-man God, offering us something richer. Once we read together in a sensitive and contemplative way, we will soon find that the heaviness of the literal falls away, as we ask: ‘how does this speak to us now?’ What would it mean to bring the words of potentially hurtful texts (say Leviticus 18:22) under the Spirit of Christ? ‘What canst thou say’ then?  The Christ-shaped rule of peace means that Scripture no longer needs to be read entirely literally. Indeed, if a literal reading of a given passage gets in the way of the rule of peace through which we read, then we must find other ways of understanding what we see on the page. What matters is glancing the living reality of Christ, often figuratively expressed, in the words of Scripture, rather than maintaining a belief in an angry ‘old man in the sky’. To illustrate this rule of peace in action, the great Christian exegete Origen (who influenced the reading technique of Augustine) wrote in his apologetic work Against Celsus, that disturbing references to God destroying his enemies should be understood allegorically as signifying to the purification of the soul of evil. Thus, taking Psalm 10 as his starting-point, Origen proceeds to blunt the edge of this potentially genocidal text:

“Every morning will I destroy the wicked of the land, that I may cut off all workers of iniquity from the city of Jehovah,” by “the land” he means the flesh whose lusts are at enmity with God; and by “the city of Jehovah” he designates his own soul, in which was the temple of God, containing the true idea and conception of God, which makes it to be admired by all who look upon it. As soon, then, as the rays of the Sun of righteousness shine into his soul, feeling strengthened and invigorated by their influence, he sets himself to destroy all the lusts of the flesh, which are called “the wicked of the land,” and drives out of that city of the Lord which is in his soul all thoughts which work iniquity, and all suggestions which are opposed to the truth. And in this way, also the just give up to destruction all their enemies, which are their vices, so that they do not spare even the children, that is, the early beginnings and promptings of evil.  (7:22).

Image result for Moses burning bushIn another place, Origen defines the attitude which allows him to make such a reading of the text possible: ‘“Unless those carnal wars (i.e. of the Hebrew Scriptures) were a symbol of spiritual wars, I do not think that the Jewish historical books would ever have been passed down by the apostles to be read by Christ’s followers in their churches” (Homilies on Joshua 15.1).Leaving aside the applied anti-Judaism of this passage, here Origen offers us a fruitful approach when we are faced with the ‘old man in the sky’.What the Apostles hand down to us in the form of the Scriptures is a tool for living out Jesus’ pattern of peace. For Origen, we need to read the Scriptures because they will keep this Christlike pattern alive for us, through chronicle, song, and prophecy. When Christians read Scripture, they are to apply the prophecy of Isaiah to every word of the text (in a kind of exegetical pacification): ‘They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more’ (Isaiah 2:4). The apostles have passed down these texts to us so that we might continue to worship the God of peace. When we set this reading technique beside the clear ambivalence of many Liberal Quakers towards Scripture, we come to realize something important about ourselves as a religious community. Many Quakers in Britain no longer treat Scripture as if they were in a Christ-shaped community. Many, if they pick up the Bible at all, all too often revert to the default empiricism or historicism of our culture, reading the Bible as history, myth or fable. They cannot conceive of the text as a window which speaks, challenges and clarifies. Jesus is another semi-fictional character in a confused and messy story, rather than the key to a deeper reading of a coherent whole. Many Quakers look at Biblical texts like Enlightenment opponents of Christianity, rather than spiritual seekers after truth. This peculiar attitude deprives us, not only of deeper communion with fellow Christians but actively alienates us from our own tradition.

Reading Scripture Anew: Towards a Richer Quakerism

Image result for George fox quakerIt serves our modern sensibilities as British Quakers (who worry about ‘the old man in the sky’) to argue that in some sense early Quakers were only Christian by accident, that the language they used was incidental to the mystical message they were trying to communicate. I have heard some Friends say, ‘if George Fox had been from a Buddhist culture, he would have used Buddhist terms’. Maybe so, but in my view, this modernist wedge between language and content is deeply unhelpful. If Fox had been a Buddhist, he wouldn’t have been a Quaker (in the sense that he would have belonged to a different story). Quakerism is the form it is because it is illuminated by a Christ-shaped way of seeing and reading things. The uncomfortable fact that we contemporary British Quakers need to face is that to be a Quaker is to belong to the Christian story. But as I suggested above, that doesn’t mean that we must believe in an angry, genocidal God, if we want to take Christian claims seriously. Of course, this is precisely the God Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens say we must believe in order to take this stuff seriously, but then they would say that wouldn’t they. They are not part of the community that cares about the Christ-shaped story. Their insistence about what we (those living through the story) should take seriously should have very little impact on our reading practice. That being so, it is exceedingly surprising how much time some Friends spend worrying about, or half-agreeing with, their criticisms. Why are we wasting our energy in this way? Instead of putting up spiritual barriers between ourselves and our tradition, we need to find ways of unlocking doors and opening minds. In short, we need to start reading Scripture more like Quakers (and more like Christians) and less like Enlightenment moderns.

How can we do that? We could do worse than take our first steps from Origen. Like that great allegorist of Alexandria, early Friends interpreted Scripture in ways consistent with their own rule of peace. The Christ who ‘comes to teach the people Himself’ was the same Lord who conferred the repudiation of violence on his followers, even down to their reception of Scripture. In a 1658 epistle against the adoption of ‘outward weapons’; George Fox offers an allegorical interpretation of the battles of the Hebrews against other nations. He asserts, ‘The Jews’ sword outwardly, by which they cut down the heathen, was a type [that is, a figure or foreshadow] of the spirit of God within, which [spirit] cuts down the heathenish nature within’.[1] Here, Fox reinterprets Biblical strife as a symbol of the inward work of the Inward Light  But Fox did not stop there. Like Origen, he applied the allegorical method to individual Biblical characters. While Fox did not doubt the historical status of many passages of Scripture, he saw Cain, Esau, David and Mary, as symbolic expressions (we might now say archetypes) of spiritual states. As Fox describes this approach in his Journal:

 I went back into Nottinghamshire, where the Lord showed me, that the natures of those things which were hurtful without, were within in the hearts and minds of wicked men. The natures of dogs, swine, vipers, of Sodom, and Egypt, Pharaoh, Cain, Ishmael, Esau, &c. The natures of these I saw within, though people had been looking without. I cried to the Lord, saying, ‘Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?’ And the Lord answered, ‘It was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions?[2]

Fox’s central point here is an astonishing one for modern skeptical Quakers to hear. One could be a humble weaver in 17th century Lancashire, but one’s inner life was always linked to the drama of Scripture.  For Fox, the Bible could speak directly to our inward states in the present moment. Here our personal histories are part of a meta-history which make sense of all our failures and dispositions. In the most profound sense, for the first Friends, the logic of God’s story is always invisibly at work in us, whether we read Scripture or not. If we continue to dwell in sin, we repeat the narrative structure of a Cain or an Esau. Yet, when we accept God’s truth we repeat the structure of a newly formed Adam or a humble Mary.  But such an allegorical approach to Scripture not only informed early Quaker attitudes to violence and spiritual growth but shaped Friendly explorations of gender. Margret Fell, in her defense of women’s ministry, draws support from the scriptural image of the Church as female to strengthen her argument. Fell notes,

 [The] Church of Christ is represented as a Woman; and those that speak against this Woman’s speaking, speak against the Church of Christ, and the Seed of the Woman, which Seed is Christ; that is to say, those that speak against the Power of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord speaking in a Woman, simply by reason of her Sex, or because she is a Woman, not regarding the Seed, and Spirit, and Power that speaks in her; such speak against Christ and his Church.[3]

Ingeniously, Fell translates the abstract metaphor of the church community as ‘woman’ into a potent weapon against the pre-eminence of male ministry. At the heart of this move is a compelling vision of God. Fell’s guiding Spirit is not an authoritarian sky-wizard handing down stale and fixed commands, but a dynamic energy which unlocks the hidden power of the Scriptural record. For Fell, scripture was not a ‘dead letter’, but a living canon, which could be used as part of an ongoing dialogue with the Spirit.  Whether the subject was the role of women or non-violence, Friends were keenly aware that reading the Bible could give rise to new and surprising positions. Moreover, the God that was communicated in Scripture was never in competition with the God loved and known in the depth or Worship. Indeed, the words of Scripture allowed the first Quakers to talk about God in the same sublime manner as Augustine at his most mystic.  God is Truth, God is the Seed, God is light, God is love. In this sense, the images and particularities of Scripture have always allowed Quakers to say that God is more than the words on the page. Neither Origen nor early Friends could talk about God as a mere ‘larger than life’ Person, and it was Scripture, that deterred them from such literalism. Both Fox and Origen were sensitive enough Scriptural readers to remember that when God spoke to Israel he was wrapped in darkness and cloud. Even with the Light shining in the heart, we cannot know fully the object of prayer. We little chatty apes should follow the will of God, but we must be suspicious of those who want to shrink God down to size or make divine motive as clear as glass. As God warns Isaiah: ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Is. 55:9). Yet, while we cannot know the essence of the thing we adore, through the life of Jesus, we can at least know its essential character. The Prince of Peace teaches us through Scripture that his every word means reconciliation and truth, and that we fulfill Scripture when healing is accomplished in us, and in the world. Just as the theologians of the early Church could take the God the Psalms (a sometimes bloody and tempestuous dictator) and see the loving Truth in them, Quakers could take the often-harrowing images contained in the Bible (the battles and the abuses) and understand them in the context of the God who breaks into their lives, in joy and fellowship.

Connecting with our ‘cloud of witnesses’

Image result for margaret fellBut if this healing application of Scripture is a key part of being Quaker, it is a form of ministry rapidly falling into disuse among many Liberal Friends. The days of the elderly Quaker parent reading the Bible at the dinner table for her children is a distant memory for many. Most British Friends are not born in Quaker families and may have little engagement with Scripture prior to coming to Meeting. Now, its pages and the God they describe are as unfamiliar as some tract of Vedic wisdom, or some textbook of Medieval medicine. People come from a post-Christian culture which has little patience for something so strange and arcane. People want freedom, authenticity, and experience, not dusty phrases or tired devotion. Given this mindset, it is always tempting to unpick a ‘God of love’ from the Scriptural soil that talk of such a God is rooted. Why do we need this book after all, surely we can just follow our hearts instead? Yet, as unfashionable as this view is, I suggest we need to resist such decoupling at all costs. A Quakerism which ignores the story at which Scripture points, is at once a shriveled and arrogant Quakerism. Shriveled because by reducing the Biblical witness to an ‘old man in the sky’ we actively make strange the Biblical landscape which is the soil of Quakerism. In turn, we make strange our own tradition and create an unnecessary rupture between ourselves and our past.Instead of seeing our Quaker experience as part of a vast ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1) many prefer to embark on our spiritual excursions alone, without a compass and without a history. But the question is, why be mean to ourselves? Why do we want to deny that the presence and identity we know and love in Meeting has a story? Honouring what has gone before (living inside a story) does not automatically render our spirituality inauthentic or mechanical.Rather than seeing such a story as a constraint, we should see it as a launch pad for deeper exploration. Yet, in our unflinching modernism, we often throw away many treasures which may be of aid to us in conceptualizing our spiritual progress. When Augustine attempted to articulate his spiritual voyage, he had the sense that his steps had been walked before. As he struggled in prayer to understand what God had commanded him, he felt he walked in the way of both Moses and Abraham:

You called from far away,“Indeed, I am who am.”And I heard, as one hears in the heart, and there was no longer any room for me to doubt; I could more easily have doubted that I was alive than I could doubt the existence of that Truth which is perceived to be understood through the things that have been made. (Augustine, Confessions, 7.10.16)

Yet Liberal Friends today are less sure than ever about the ways in which their personal journeys intersect with historical ones, in part because there is little effort on the part of Liberal Quakerism to envision a common quest that all must walk.The emphasis is on maintaining a common practice rather than a shared symbolism. There is simply no common story those attending such a Quaker meeting share. In good modernist style, Liberal Friends represent Quakerism as a bundle of charming options, which can be modified or thrown aside, if the self so desires it. While many find this process freeing, there is something deeply arrogant about this enforced spiritual de-cluttering engaged in by many Friends. This is nowhere more obvious than Liberal approaches to Scripture and the God it communicates. By representing the God of the Bible as ‘old hat, ‘backward’ or a ‘relic’ we assume rather arrogantly that we Quakers are more advanced than those who continue to use this book as guide and solace. In this mold, ‘the old man in the sky’ trope is a form of self-congratulation. “Thank goodness”, says such a Friend, “we have left all that Biblical religion behind.” But it would benefit such a Friend to know that Quakers have not been the first to think of God as more than an anthropomorphic tyrant (talk to the Rabbis). Moreover, Liberal Quakers are not the only ones to think of God as ‘spirit’, ‘energy’ or ‘truth’. And horror of horrors so-called ‘Christian orthodoxy’ got their first. It would also advantage such a Friend to know that other great souls have found the scenes of divine blood unsettling and have endeavored to understand them in the light of their spiritual experience. Instead of resting on our claims to superior ‘mysticism’, perhaps Quakers could spend a bit more time with Augustine, Origen, and Tertullian. You never know, we might learn something. As our Friend Mark Russ, has characterized the problem with some Liberal Friends: ‘When Quakers say ‘we don’t need theology’, we think we’re throwing off oppressive chains, whereas actually, we’re leaving a vibrant dinner party in favour of eating our sandwiches in the car and talking to ourselves’.The same can be said of the distaste that some contemporary Quakers show towards Scripture. Being sectarian about our Quaker identity might be comforting, even reassuring, but it denies us the legacy which is ours, not just the Bible, but the centuries of reflection on the words and images we can use for God left by others. Let’s not leave the dinner party till we’ve had our fill of finger food and conversation.

[1] George Fox, Ye are called to peace” — an epistle by George Fox [1658]$a/foxpeace.html

[2] Fox, the Journal, Chapter 1.

[3] Fell, Women’s Speaking Justified, Margret Fell,

Enchanted Quakerism (Part I)

Enchantment and Quaker Identity

Since Max Weber’s groundbreaking study, The Protestant Ethic and Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905:1930) it has become something of a scholarly trope to treat the rise of secular modernity and the formation of Quakerism as going effortlessly together. As one of the numerous puritan sects (framed by the milieu of Calvinism), Quakers transmitted and reinforced what would become dominant technical values of work, asceticism and productiveness which sustained the post-feudal economy. Here Quakers are depicted as resolutely ‘modern’ because they exemplify the moral habitus upon which early capitalist expansion and accumulation ultimately depended on.  While pre-modern religion was sustained by a magical connection between symbolic and concrete realities, Weber argued that early Quaker exemplified a rational and disenchanted vision of the world. This is certainly a powerful story modern British Friends tell about how ourselves. In this connection, we sometimes call ourselves a ‘Liberal Religion’, which along with Progressive Judaism and Unitarianism, celebrates questioning and scepticism. Whatever old religion once consisted of (ritual, magic and creeds) we Friends have now done away with them. But in next two posts, I want to call into question the habitual link between Quakerism and modernity by introducing you to a magical, enchanted, Quakerism, which, I argue, is the real basis of our faith and practice.  The object of introducing you this unfamiliar faith is to suggest ways in which our contemporary Liberal Quaker might be impoverished of some deep spiritual riches. In an effort to place this portrait in the context of contemporary Quakerism, the second post will focus on how early Quakerism can challenge and enrich us today.

Before getting down to these substantial issues, what do I mean by enchanted Quakerism? And how is it different from our modern way of thinking? Here I take my cue from the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.  In his twin studies, Sources of the Self and The Secular Age, Taylor suggests that a controlling feature of our modern world is the disenchantment of the cosmos. In the pre-modern cosmologies of Catholic Europe, objective and subjective experiences were always fused together in people’s daily experiences. So for an average Medieval Christian, physical processes like birth, growth and death had the capacity to represent the sacred unfolding in time. Likewise, ordinary objects like bread, iron or fire, could be imbibed with divine power by ritual gesture or intention. How was it that the religious elites of Christendom could reconcile themselves to this roundly superstitious cast of mind? The theological roots of this reconciliation run deep in the thought of Augustine of Hippo. For him, creation is not just a collection of stuff, but a text which could be read be an acute observer. Another way of putting it is to say that things of the ordinary world could ‘signify’ divine things.  As Augustine expresses this doctrine in De doctrina christiana, the world abounds with signa naturalia, which leads the mind from material objects back to their Creator.[1]

Image result for book of nature medieval Thus for Medieval Augustinians (and later Thomists) reality was not merely inert material to be deconstructed but Buch der Natur– a book to be studiously read for ‘signs’ of divine nature. Crucially such a symbolic meaning are not productions of the individual mind (imposed on something which otherwise is without meaning). The structure of the world is interwoven with symbolic meaning, irrespective of the particular sensibilities of the human observer. It is precisely this radical commitment to nature as text which for Taylor renders the Middle Ages is an epoch of high enchantment. To be ‘enchanted’ means to perceive the power of the subjective in objects and perceive the objective status of what is subjective. This is fundamentally a world where words, gestures and intentions can have real concrete effects. It is a world of high ritual yes, but also a cosmos of angels, spirits and miracles. And most importantly, God is always doing stuff in the real day to day world. From the sacred procession of the liturgical year[2] to popular recourse to saintly intercession[3] and protective charms,[4] Medieval life was continually filled with symbolic reminders that one is included in the unfolding ‘story’ of God’s salvation-drama. Here the divine and human worlds were not separate realms (which needed to be navigated according to divergent rules) but part of the same ordered reality. The Eucharistic rite is a vivid illustration of this radical form of everyday sanctity. By the High Middle Ages, the wine and the host were charged objects, capable of communicating ‘the white magic’[5] of the Church to the faithful. Their power was considered so great that many Medieval congregants feared to take communion on the basis that ‘charged objects, however, good their magic can be dangerous if taken from the wrong side’.[6]

The White Magic of Gift

Image result for eucharistWhat was it about this ‘white magic’ that it provoked awe and fear? A useful framework through which to understand ‘the magic’ of the Eucharistic rite is offered by the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss and his theory of ‘gift’. Through his analysis of diverse ancient cultures, Mauss seeks to demonstrate that social orders are commonly maintained by the reciprocal transfer of gifts between their members. Each gift given has an obligation to give in turn, and therefore maintaining a circularity of giving. Yet, in archaic societies, the worth of these gifts are not calculated according to mere utility but is related to an intangible connection between the gift and the giver. As Mauss expresses this conflation ‘What imposes obligation in the present received and exchanged, is the fact that the thing received is not inactive. Even when it had been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses something of him.’[7]  Thus in the act of giving, ‘[the] chief is merged with his clan and the clan with him. Individuals feel themselves acting in only one way.’[8] In this vein, partaking of the gift, itself imparts the virtues of the chief- his act of generous act magically translated into the means of social wholeness. We can see this organicist logic repeated demonstrated in popular Medieval beliefs surrounding the wine and host. Here Jesus Christ is not merely the ‘clan chief’ at the level of the memorial (Protestant realism[9]) but is an active participant in Eucharistic exchange. In accord with the concreteness of Medieval semiotics, the subjective experience generated by ritual enactment possesses concrete objectivity. The Son of God (who once healed the sick and fed the hungry) is still present in the Eucharistic act, engaging in the same work, often in ways transgressing theological orthodoxy. As Kat Hill observes regarding popular receptions of the Eucharist:

People believed that the clothes worn to the service could be imbued with thaumaturgic properties, so that in Oldenburg in north-west Germany ill calves were treated with the salt and water in a shoe which had recently been worn recently at the sacrament. The altar cloth on which the bread and wine were placed was said to heal epileptics and the possessed; the corporal, the pure white cloth reserved for the Host, was said to be good for eye illnesses.[10]

The sheer reach of this magical-semiotic mode of thinking tells us something crucial about the character of Medieval ecclesiology. The Church sought to be the pervasive guardians of a cosmic economy of gift, with Jesus, the Eucharistic giver, at the centre. The Eucharistic table and its power were emblematic of a sacred social vision, where the gift-giving of Jesus was to re-enacted in everyday life. This is demonstrated by Christendom’s interlocking systems of charity, just price legislation and anti-usury controls.[11]  Viewed theo-politically these measures were intended to ensure that the ‘magic’ of the Eucharistic table was all-encompassing. There was to be no space where the logic of sacred gift did not rule, ‘on earth as in heaven’ (Matt 6:20). The result of this attitude was an accentuation of the idea that divine power functions like a natural fact- like electricity. The magical power of the Eucharist could be harnessed for diverse ends, sometimes nefarious ones. Medieval texts abound with the fear that wicked priests or witches might steal the host and use its power for improper or malicious intent.[12] Yet as a gift imprinted with the character of the Christ-giver had ways of fighting back against its theft or desecration. Indeed, as Mauss reminds us, in the logic of archaic exchange, ‘To refuse to give, to fail to invite, just as to refuse to accept, is tantamount to declaring war’.[13] And as the combatant, the host could be a formidable force, with the power to mutilate the offenders’ body.[14]  Such stories merely underscore that key dimension of enchantment- that symbolic interactions are not viewed as human judgements (existing in and through the self) but as constituting the deep structure of reality.

How Did We Become Disenchanted?

So how is the modern world different?  For Taylor the answer lies chiefly in a distinctly modern wedge between outward form and inner meaning. Disenchantment occurs when divine power no longer rests in the structure of ritual acts or resides in material objects, but resides instead in the transformed inward perception of the believer.[15] Thus, when Protestant reformers decried the saints’ days, images and talismans of Medieval Catholicism as gross idolatries, set their faces against an implicit religion of mediation which bound material and spiritual reality together. Theology, once the handmaiden of this vision of enchantment became the means by which Christianity became the great conqueror of enchantment which it now deemed heathenish in the extreme. According to Taylor such resistance has several enduring effects:

The power of God doesn’t work through various ‘sacramentals’ or locations of sacred powers which we can draw on. These are seen to be something we can control, and hence blasphemous. In one way we can say that the sacred/profane distinction breaks down, insofar as it can be placed in person, time, space, gesture. This means that the sacred is suddenly broadened…. But in another way, the channels are radically narrowed because this sanctification depends entirely now on our inner transformation, our throwing ourselves on God’s mercy in faith…. So we disenchant the world; we reject the sacramentals; all the elements of ‘magic’ in the old religion.[16]

Once the ‘old magic’ is removed taken a number of notable trajectories become in principle possible- including ‘the relativization of outer ceremony’, ‘Latitudinarianism’ and reliance on some notion of ‘inner light’.[17]  Regardless of the precise outworking of disenchantment, one fact remains constant. In the world after enchantment, one could not expect the world to offer an automatic portal to the divine. One must instead know God in through the inward faculties of the mind, heart and will. In this vein, we can understand Luther’s claim that ‘faith alone’[18] is the key to salvation as an explicit protest against a world in which divine power flows generally and indiscriminately, without reference to the self.  For Luther, God’s power was not a natural power which effortless inhabited the world.  Rather, for Luther the force of Christ was an alien presence, which made itself known to the individual, whom God wished to be saved. At its most extreme, such a rejection of the concrete power of symbol could lead to isolation or permanent introspection. The 17th-century philosopher Benedict Spinoza provides an excellent case study in this regard. As a man who lived much of his later life without the cultic structure of any religious community (and without a unified sacred story) Spinoza makes explicit many of the latent possibilities at the heart of Luther’s theological proposal. If the individual is the proper locus of religious experience, why is the Church or Synagogue needed to guarantee this inward activity? Spinoza’s answer in his Theo-Political Treatise is that old world of miracles, institutions and signs is bred by false belief and ignorance. As Spinoza reflects on this incurious cast of mind:

 The masses…style unusual phenomena “miracles,” and partly from piety, partly from opposing the students of science, prefer to remain in ignorance of natural causes and only to hear of those things which they know least, and consequently admire most. In fact, the common people can only adore God and refer all things to His power by removing natural causes, and conceiving of things happening out of its due course, and only admires the power of God when the power of nature is subject to it. This idea seems to have taken its rise among the early Jews who saw the Gentiles around them worshipping visible gods like the sun….and in order to inspire the conviction that such divinities were weak and inconstant or changeable, told how they themselves were under the sway of an invisible God, and narrated their miracles, trying to further show that the God they worshipped arranged the whole of nature for their sole benefit.[19]

Image result for SpinozaIn place of a word of interconnected superstitions, Spinoza advocates a rational and entirely inward love of God, where the mind adores the order and beauty of the world, without the misguided hope that consciousness of any kind can affect its course. A key exemplar of this inward ideal for Spinoza was Jesus of Nazareth, whose supposed miracles were quite secondary to the reform of the soul.[20] Instead of a world mediated by interlocking symbols (replicating relations of gift) Spinoza came to view God and nature as modes of a single rational system which possesses no desire or subjectivity other than the subjectivity displayed in the lives of finite beings. It is in this, and similar moves that we can see the key contours of the modern vision of the cosmos. The above account leaves the Quaker theologian with two of pressing questions. What extent do early Quaker communities display tendencies towards modern disenchantment? And how might such tendencies be said to impact early Quaker commitments?

Telling a Different Story: Quakers and Witchcraft

Image result for witchcraftMy response to the above queries is to suggest that the essence of Quakerism is not in anyway ‘liberal’, ‘secular’ or ‘democratic’, but rather rooted in a notion of enchanted religion. For a long time, Liberal Quakers (including many in Britain) have thought of themselves as deeply modern and progressive, forgetting of course, the less respectable, less modernist strands of Quaker experience. Of course at first glance, Quaker theology conformed to the mainstay of Taylor’s modernist tale of disenchantment, in perhaps its most extreme form. After all, embryonic Quakerism utterly rejected traditional Church hierarchies[21], separate priesthoods, liturgies, and the very notion of sacred sites or objects. But the way we knit these features into a story about how Enlightened and modern we are, is actually a fairly recent tale itself. We see this powerfully expressed in Isaac Pennington 1659 tract Babylon the Great described. By applying the recognisably Augustinian division between the City of God and the City of Man, Pennington argues that his contemporaries have been spiritually deceived. While they thought they were devoting themselves to the City of God (through services, rites and liturgies), they were, in fact, participating in the hollow devices of those forces, that actively oppose the rule of Christ. As Pennington sketches the contours of this latter state:

[It] is a spiritual city, a mystical city, a city built by the working of the mystery of iniquity, 2 Thes. 2:7. whereupon she (the whore of Babylon) is called mystery. Rev. 17:5. It is not a city of plain wickedness, but a city of sin hid; of sin keeping its life under a covering, under a form of godliness; of sin reigning in the heart under zeal, under devotion, under praying, believing, worshipping, hoping, waiting, &c. Where sin lies hid within under these, there is Babylon; there is the mystery of witchcraft; there is the painted throne of Satan; there is spiritual Egypt and Sodom, where the Lord of life is daily crucified.[22]

At the heart of this social order lies ‘varieties of sorcery, of witchery, of enchantments’ which intoxicates the pious by enslaving their ‘spiritual senses’.[23] Why this focus on the occult? In taking up this imagery Pennington was doing no more than echoing the experimental theology of early Quaker leaders. George Fox makes clear throughout his Journal that has encountered and supernaturally contended with witches.[24] James Nayler was equally convinced of the existence of those who wielded supernatural power.  In this creature of popular fear and revulsion, Quakers saw a mirror of their own spiritual path. While Friends saw the power of Christ as constituting a pure and absolute gift, witchcraft exemplified the spirit of those who wanted to satisfy the motions of the will.[25] In this way, Pennington’s evocation of witchcraft is intended to express his general rejection of a religiosity of control and manipulation.  In a deeply apocalyptic outworking of this argument, Pennington condemns those who pursue ‘great power, signs, miracles’[26] on the basis that such searchers would become deceived by the false and wicked displays of demonic power. While Pennington readily concedes that the dynamics of ritual and enchanted dictated the terms of the first covenant (provided for ‘them that believe not’[27]) he suggests that the second covenant is radically iconoclastic. Instead of looking outward signs and images, those who follow Christ, do so in a spirit of inward truth, without the crutch of wonders. Yet, what of those who continue to participate in the great ritualistic/symbolic edifice of Christendom? Are they by necessity wicked? Pennington, in a moment of remarkable tenderness, refuses to wholly condemn the life of the old cosmic ritualist. The deceived, he says, will frequently have their goodness used against them, so that they ‘shall never come out of Babylon; but only be translated into some of the more refined chambers of it, and fed with some more fresh likenesses of truth, where he shall still remain an inhabitant and worshipper in some image, perhaps of universal love, life, and liberty, and yet be out of the life, out of the love, out of the liberty of the truth’.[28]

Enchanted without Rituals

Image result for witchcraftSo what does discussion add to Taylor story about disenchantment? My suggestion is that early Quakerism represents something very odd indeed. Early Friends rejected the rituals and symbols of Christendom, but they still subscribed to the magical thinking and beliefs that underlined the old sacred order. First generation Quakers can believe in witches but reject the Eucharist.They participate in the old vision of the magical sacred in a new way. So early Friends don’t reject the idea of the world as a book to be read, they just reject the dominant pair of reading glasses.Yet if Friends expressed their commitment to enchantment through defensive postures against witchcraft[29], they also rendered their own bodies enchanted through the indwelling work of the Spirit. Many early Quaker leaders had the capacity to channel supernatural power through touch, in the manner of Jesus and the Apostles[30], or through the peculiar power of silent prayer.[31] The itinerant preacher James Nayler was even credited with the power to raise the dead.[32]

Miraculous healing abilities of Friends were accompanied by other strange powers, worthy of their occult adversaries.  These included clairvoyance[33], telepathy and the power to interpret the meaning of dreams.[34] If Friends were not fully aware of their role in sustaining an older model of religious enchantment, it was not lost on their more conventionally Protestant opponents, for whom the charismatic nature of Quaker ministry served as a sure sign of the very diabolisms Quakers publicly opposed. For both Puritan and Anglican churches, the spirit-led nature of early Quakerism must have appeared indistinguishable from sorcery.[35]  Thus, when the scholar Samuel Fisher was convinced by George Fox in 1655, it is notable that friends regarded Fisher as ‘bewitched’.[36] In conjunction with this accusation, there was also the recurrent connection in anti-Quaker tracts between Friends and Catholicism. At its most elaborate, unreceptive contemporaries saw the Quaker craze as a Jesuit-inspired plot to undermine the true faith.[37] While this latter connection evidently arose from the sheer social otherness of Quakerism, it may also owe something to a subconscious judgement made by hostile opponents.  Looked at from a distance, one can see a stark resemblance between the liberality with which Quakers were said to dispense supernatural power, and the older white magic of medieval Catholicism.Quakers now saw themselves, and not Christendom as the Guardians of the Churches’ Eucharistic gift.  While the Anglicans and Catholics behaved like Simon Magus (in their attempt to capture the Spirit for power and fame) Friends sought the magical gift in the proper spirit of the Gospel. They wanted the power shared and shared alike. If magic was like electricity in the pre-modern world, Friends were like lightning conductors. With their doctrine of perfectionism and commitment to the Inward Light of Christ in the body of the true believer, Calvinist and Anglican might be forgiven for thinking that Quakers saw themselves as directors of supernatural power, like the medieval priest, or the fugitive witch in possession of the host.

 The Enchanted World of Woolman

Image result for John woolman quakerBut surely of all of this enchantment was just a first-generation enthusiasm which died down in the end?  Yes, it did, but strong postures of enchantment existed within Anglophone Quakerism, much longer than people now realise.  An excellent example of late enchantment can be found in the New England Quaker abolitionist John Woolman (1720 –1772). A cursory acquaintance with Woolman’s Journal reveals a rich religious life, infused with dreams and visitations.[38] What is so significant in Woolman for contemporary theorists of enchantment is the way in which the ordinary realms of home, work and sleep[39] are always infused with divine or angelic[40] presences.  In such a world moments of faith healing and prophecy are not merely possible, but entirely to be expected. Indeed, as Woolman points out, his own experience of prayer had convinced him that of the veracity of ‘the miracles of Jesus Christ recorded in the holy Scriptures.’[41]  As such a remark implies, the spiritual life is more than an interior activity for Woolman. Like Augustine, this colonial Quaker is acutely aware that the world as full of ‘natural signs’, so that nature communicates the will of the creator. As Woolman reflects, even the weather we can reflect God’s intent:

 [After] a long drought, when the sky hath grown dark with a collection of matter, and clouds like lakes of water hung over our heads, from whence the thirsty land have been soaked; I have at times, with awfulness, beheld the vehement operation of lightning, made sometimes to accompany these blessings, as a messenger from him who created all things, to remind us of our duty in a right use of those benefits, and give striking admonitions, that we do not misapply those gifts, in which an Almighty power is exerted, in bestowing them upon us.[42]

Instead of disinvesting the world of power, nature served as the basis for Woolman’s exploration of the spiritual world within. In contrast to Weber’s modernist rationalism,   Friends like Woolman continue to display a much older magical rationality, where God-space and daily space continually intersect. What might this enchanted world of Fox, Pennington and Woolman relate to the world of British Quakers today? In the next post, I try to offer a constructive challenge to the secularist and pluralistic tendencies of Liberal Quakerism. I will suggest that only through the recovery of a sacred cosmos can Quakerism develop a mode of internal coherence which can adequately disentangle its own practices from those of secularism, Enlightenment rationalism and capitalism.

[1] For a clear summary of these theological concepts, see Rhodora E. Beaton, Embodied Words, Spoken Signs: Sacramentality and the Word in Rahner and Chauvet, (Mediapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), p. 25

[2] Taylor, A Secular Age, (London: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 614

[3] Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 79

[4] Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 71

[5] Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 73

[6] Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 73

[7] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, (London: Routledge, 1990: 2000), p. 12

[8] Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, (London: Routledge, 1990: 2000), p. 32

[9] See Kilian McDonnell, John Calvin, the Church and the Eucharist, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 281-282

[10] Kate Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism 1525-1585, (Oxford: Oxford University, 2015), p. 145

[11] Paul Turpin, The Moral Rhetoric of Political Economy: Justice and Modern Economic Thought, (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 27

[12] Merrall L. Price, Consuming Passions: The Uses of Cannibalism in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 60

[13] Mauss, The Gift p.

[14] C. M. Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England, (Yale: Yale University Press, p. 44

[15] Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 111

[16] Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 79

[17] Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 227-8

[18] Martin Luther, Commentary on the Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1956: 1974), p. 110

[19] Benedict Spinoza, Theo-Political Treatise, in Works of Spinoza, Volume I, trans R.H.M. Elwes, (New York: Dover Publications, 1951), pp. 81-82

[20] Spinoza, Theo-Political Treatise, in Works of Spinoza, Volume I, trans R.H.M. Elwes, (New York: Dover Publications, 1951), p. 105

[21] John W. Graham, The Faith of a Quaker, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920), p. 403

[22] Isaac Pennington, The Works of Isaac Pennington, Vol. 1. (Farmington: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995), p. 143-4

[23] Pennington, The Works of Isaac Pennington, Vol. 1. (Farmington: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995), p. 150

[24] George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, ed. John L. Nickalls, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), p. 155

[25] James Nayler, A collection of sundry books, epistles and papers written by James Nayler, (London: Whetstone & Buxton, 1829), p. 354

[26] Pennington, The Works, p. 145

[27] Pennington, The Works, p. 146

[28] Pennington, The Works, p. 146

[29] Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 384

[30] See G. N. Cantor, Quakers, Jews, and Science: Religious Responses to Modernity and the Sciences in Britain, 1650-1900, (Oxford: Ox University Press, 2005), p. 227

[31] Jane Straw, Miracles in Enlightenment England, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 54

[32] Peter Elmer, ‘‘Saints or Sorcerers: Quakerism, Demonology and the Decline of Witchcraft in Seventeenth England Century’, in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, ed. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 149

[33] James Mooney, The Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee, (New York: Dover Publications, 1973), p. 937

[34] These interlocking elements of Quaker religious life was given a vital dialogical function when Quakers settled in America. When Friends encountered Native American practices of healing and dream interpretation, they possessed their own compelling cultural analogue. There are even records of Quakers assisting members of various tribes in the task of dream interpretation. See Carla Gerona, ‘Imagining Peace in Quaker and Native American Dream Stories’, in Friends and Enemies in Penn’s Woods: Colonists, Indians, and the Racial Construction of Pennsylvania, (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 2004), pp. 45-6

[35] Own Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History, (London: Continuum, 2003), pp. 36-7

[36] Peter Elmer, Witchcraft, Witch-Hunting, and Politics in Early Modern England, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 152

[37] See Elmer, ‘‘Saints or Sorcerers: Quakerism, Demonology and the Decline of Witchcraft in Seventeenth England Century’, in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, ed. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 159-60

[38] Geoffrey Plank, John Woolman’s Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), p. 184

[39] Plank, John Woolman’s Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), p. 36

[40] In one remarkable dream, Woolman is able to hear the voices of angels as well as witness the reaction of heaven as he repents of his sin of self-will. See The Journal of John Woolman, (Boston: James R. Osgood & Company, 1871), p. 264-5

[41] John Woolman, Quoted in Job Otis, Memoirs of the Life and Religious Exercises of Job Otis, (New York: Sherwood, 1861), p.  75

[42] John Woolman, ‘Considerations on the Unity and Harmony of Mankind’, in John Woolman and the Affairs of Truth, ed. James Pound, (San Francisco, Inner Light Books), p. 163

Reflections on the Goddess in the Meeting House

Recently, I came across a wonderful post from Rhiannon’s blog Brigid, Fox, and Buddha  which spurred me on to indulge in, what felt like confessional writing. It all began with the following section quoted below. In an effort to capture her understanding of God, Rhiannon writes:

Goddess for me is within us, alongside us, dancing in the depths of all things. God for me is reaching out, helping hands, laughing, growing, sharing. Goddess for me is positively feminine and masculine and nongendered. God for me is found by imaginative contact with the inner world: lights, trees, seeds, ways. Goddess for me is a nonexistent undeniable impossible reality

This bundle of compelling images got me thinking about the language I use for God– where it comes from and the stories attached to it. This seems an important and very Quakerly exercise, since, as Rhiannon’s post implies, so much of religious life is about the power of language. Afterall, when the twenty-something George Fox was brought to the depths of despair by the state of his soul, he sought for the words which could give him both consolation and peace. He went from priest to priest and sect to sect seeking a language of comfort but found nothing except vain ‘hot-air’. Like the equally troubled character of Holden in J.D. Salinger Catcher in the Rye, this young puritan felt surrounded by ‘phonies’- people who pretended to know what life was all about, but had barely scratched the surface. Those who pronounced ‘easy answers’, George found duplicitous and hypocritical, unable to ‘speak to his ‘condition’. Finally, he found words to salve him, not in human institutions or systems, but through a tranquil secret voice which offered him a redemptive language to live by. This was ‘the inward light’, which, while showing Fox the seemingly bottomless pit of human darkness and depravity, also opened to him the inexhaustible wellsprings of divine love and grace.

Today, Quakers both cherish and wrestle with Fox’s legacy of ‘experiential’ faith, as well as the vivid, and at times arcane, religious vocabulary he gifted to subsequent generations of Friends. Many contemporary Quakers, guided by the spirit of Fox’s original search, have themselves sought a living ‘spiritual language’ through which they might experience the same treasures early Friends themselves found. For some this has taken the form of a renewed study of early Friends and a keen attentiveness to the imagery of scripture, while for others, a living Quaker faith has come from a wider appreciation of other sources. For my own part, I am the happy beneficiary of two ‘spiritual languages’ exemplifying these twin paths of Quaker renewal. I learnt my former Christian language early on, through the intermittent visits to my local parish church at Easter and Christmastide, the hymns of my little Church of England primary school and kindly instruction of a Salvation Army preacher. As the years went by I began to realise that these old stories of kings and seers, angels and saints, represented a living reservoir of inspiration and instruction. Despite the seeming sexism, homophobia and misogyny of many Biblical texts I could not let go of the beauty of the Psalms, the social justice of the Hebrew prophets or the gentle sayings of Jesus. They schooled me, not only in some of the best ideas humans have ever committed to paper (or papyri) but also made me realise that religious life was more than a cerebral exercise, but involved the application of practical compassion.

Exposure to my second ‘spiritual language’ occurred in my mid-teens through a teaching assistant at my secondary school called Jackie. She was a pagan priestess and witch, and while never forcing her beliefs on me, was joyously open about her life and faith. She was glad to answer my questions and even allowed me to participate in pagan ceremonies. One August afternoon I went to her house to perform a seasonal ritual in her back-garden. Midst a sacred circle drawn by water, incense and earth, Jackie called to our respective gods; my mine the Anglican god of church-spires and echoing bells, hers the gods of the green earth and the blue sky. In Jackie’s faith, a circle, consecrated with silent intent or words of power is described as ‘between the worlds’, a space where one may see the divine clearly, at work in the world and in our selves. In the sanctuary of the sacred circle I felt the presence of those mysterious spirits whom Jackie called ‘the Old Ones’, yet I also inexplicably felt the Christ god (my God) rejoicing with us as the ritual unfolded. On this holy ground I knew a weighty truth which I have tried to intellectualise ever since; that both our religions were in some sense true. Jackie’s language and mine both pointed towards the same spiritual reality, of that I felt sure. From Jackie, I discovered to my delight that there was not only ‘God’ but ‘Goddess’ as well, keeping the world in perfect balance. If I needed anything I could turn to the Lady as well as the Lord.

As a young gay man I found it suddenly liberating to worship the divine feminine in counterbalance to the distant asexual sky-god who seemed to dominate Sunday sermons. It appeared to me that the Goddess affirmed human sexuality, intimacy and fun, not pointless restraint and guilt so interwoven into my childhood conception of God. With these rich rewards came great personal difficulty. I struggled to reconcile what Jackie had shown me with my religious upbringing, first intentionally suppressing what happened during the ritual (because it simply didn’t fit into any traditional world-view I knew of) and then for a time, leaving religious practice. altogether. Yet as the years went on, I found myself unable to deny either the rich language of earth-spirituality Jackie had gifted to me or the potent vocabulary of Scripture which I was brought up with.  I wanted something of Jackie’s Goddess to follow me from the woods and dales into Church (later the Meeting House). I wanted Her to join me and Jesus in the depth of worship.

Where do I stand now? I now feel able to tentatively walk my Quaker path with greater integrity, using a rich form of theological dual speech. I no-longer feeling pulled continually in two opposing directions. If as a Quaker I am committed to speaking and seeking the truth, then I can do no other than test these experiences and hold them in the soil of a shared Quaker language. I know I must be true to my spiritual stirring, even if it brings me to unfamiliar terrains. When Jackie spoke, it was always through the prism of the wise woman (she who, in Terry Pratchett’s beautiful phrase, ‘wears midnight’). As it turned out, I had a different calling, one involving many more dusty 18th century tomes and much more mistletoe! At the heart of my spiritual landscape is the image of the Living Christ, yet beside him (perhaps incongiously) is the figure of the Druid sage. When most people think of Druids, they normally envisage René Goscinny’s charming Gallic sage Getafix from the Asterix comics, or perhaps Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle from the 1970s horror film, Wicker Man. In the popular imagination at any rate the druid represents a peculiar mixture of ancient solemnity and naked brutality. Modern Druidry as I discovered it as a teenager seemed a far cry from these conceptions, neither dominated by elderly men with the obligatory magic potions and sickles, nor particularly interested in the macabre.

At the heart of Druid perception is the idea that materiality and spirit are one. To walk the world as a Druid means to extend our field of listening to include the very earth under our feet and the sky overhead. It means to ever extend our capacity for reverence and compassion in a world that constantly wants to draw boundaries around people and things. To be a Druid means to treat the seasons as a map of the soul, a compass of vision and deep perception. Being a Druid means honouring the past yet peering into the future. In this guise as guide and seer, the Druid has as much resonance for me as the language ‘Spirit’, ‘redemption’ or ‘Light’. How does this language help me be a more faithfully Quaker? Druidry helps me sustain a Quaker attitude of ‘giftedness’- the notion that life is something offered by a joyful ‘giver’. Such a way of seeing leads me to affirm a ‘God(dess) of love’ who is the matrix of all life. In this divine web, every being is cherished, every creature is valued. While the world eventually tears itself apart under the strain of its own laws, in eternity, no-one and nothing will be left behind. Jesus of Nazareth is a flesh and blood representative of this promise of perpetual cherishing.  I can now say, with Columba of Iona that, ‘my druid is Christ’. My way of thinking and speaking is not divided into parts, but represents a seamless whole. In trying to articulate all this, I don’t think I can ever come to a simple answer through some pre-packaged badge of allegiance, yet it would be totally un-Quaker to deny my experience. Indeed, it would go against the very inquiring spirit which George Fox himself cultivated. As the Goddess Feminist and Quaker Alison Leonard has pointed out; ‘Riding more than one horse across a stream is a tricky business, but sometimes it’s the only way that’s true to the subtlety and complexity of life. The truth is not a single mount but a herd, a stream, a constant flow of colour and movement and energy’. If so, we cannot stand still but must rather follow our leadings as best we can, even if that means using new words to express what the Light of Christ is telling us.

Boulton, Lindbeck and Rorty: Imagining a Quakerism without Metaphysics (Part 2.)

The Fruits of Our Narrative

All this sounds awfully freeing doesn’t it? Once we’ve put metaphysical questions about ‘reality’ to bed, we can surely get on with being Quaker? Yes, but at the same time such an approach is demanding. It necessitates that we know our story inside out, that we can read it well, and trace its implications with confidence. We need to able to say how the story should run and what it’s language generates An excellent summary of this kind of religious literacy is provided by the Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck. Instead of seeing religion as a set of abstract beliefs (about ‘nature’ or ‘super-nature’) Lindbeck suggests that religions should be understood as ‘cultural-linguistic’ systems. Religions are like complex languages which are only fully comprehensible to native speakers. Participants in the story know what to do, not because of ‘ultimate foundations’, because they have learnt what constitutes a convincing and coherent reading. As Lindbeck puts it:

A comprehensive scheme or story used to structure all dimensions of existence is not primarily a set of propositions to be believed, but it is rather the medium in which one moves, a set of skills one employs in living one’s life. Its vocabulary and its syntax may be used for many purposes, only one of which is the formulation of statements about reality. Thus while a religion’s truth claims are often of the utmost importance to it (as in the case of Christianity), it is, nevertheless, the conceptual vocabulary and the syntax or inner logic which determine the kinds of truth claims the religion can make. The cognitive aspect, while often important, is not primary. (Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 35)

According to this account, how do we know when we are speaking and acting coherently as Quakers? We know because our speech and consequent action are consistent with our story of ‘peace’, ‘truth’ and ‘love’.  We discern the right way forward, not because we have hampered out some account of God’s existence (or non-existence) but because are able to make the link between our stories, our words and our concrete practice. For the provisional ‘realist’ like me these marks of coherent practice are ‘the fruits of the Holy Spirit’. For a nonrealist like David, these are the marks of a community attentively gathered, held together by (nothing more and nothing less) than the community’s narrative consistency. I  might quibble about the full meaning of such consistency, but at the level of practice, is there really a substantial difference? And it is here we return to Rorty. If accounts of ultimate truth become bogus, says Rorty, then we need to find a better way of thinking. Rorty calls this perspective an ‘ironic’ or ‘pragmatic’ approach to matters of truth. As he expresses this alternative way of seeing:

[To] say that a belief is, as far as we know, true, is to say that no alternative belief is, as far as we know, a better habit of acting. When we say that our ancestors believed, falsely, that the sun went around the earth, and that we believe, truly, that the earth goes round the sun, we are saying that we have a better tool than our ancestors did. Our ancestors might rejoin that their tool enabled them to believe in the literal truth of the Christian Scriptures, whereas ours does not. Our reply has to be, I think, that the benefits of modern astronomy and of space travel outweigh the advantages of Christian fundamentalism. The argument between us and our medieval ancestors should not be about which of us has got the universe right. It should be about the point of holding views about the motion of heavenly bodies, the ends to be achieved by the use of certain tools. Confirming the truth of Scripture is one such aim, space travel another (Rorty, Philosophy of Social Hope, p. xxv).

Truth understood as Loving Practice

What Rorty is telling us is something both profound and deeply uncomfortable. He is suggesting that we should think of truth not as some weird ethereal quality, but the word we use when an idea, object or concept, produces some ‘useful result. In Christian terms we might turn to Jesus’ aphorism: “By their fruit you will know them’ (Matt. 7:16). In this mode, philosophizing or theologising, is not about getting to some ‘truth’ out there. It is about developing a way of speaking and acting which produces the results we think are consistent with our speech.  While I always hesitate to fully go along with Rorty’s radical project, I think he touches on a deep, dare I say ‘truth’ which is at the bedrock of Christian theology.

As Christians we are taught that ‘No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father (John 6:46). So do we know God? At most we know God through ‘the results’ of our language about God. Jesus was recognized as ‘the Son’ because his acts of healing and gift-giving converged with his words. The internal coherence between his Kingdom-talk and practice, was the prime mark of his truthfulness and revelatory power.  For those who came after Jesus, this link between claim and practice was at the heart of Christian conceptions of living and knowing. As the Letter of James beautifully puts it: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ (James 1:27).  What are the implications of this view of God? The philosopher Santiago Zabala suggests that such a vision of deity involves a dissolution of metaphysics and an embrace of moral practice:

The truth that shall make us free (John 8: 32) is not the objective truth of theology and the natural sciences: the scriptural revelation contains no explanation of how God is made or how to save ourselves through knowledge of the truth. The only truth that the Bible reveals to us is the practical appeal to love, to charity. The truth of Christianity is the dissolution of the metaphysical concept of truth itself. (Santiago Zabala, After Religion,  p. 14)

The only way we can come close to what saints and sages call ‘God’ is to practice loving-kindness. This is why Jesus remained silent after Pilate’s question. Truth was not ‘out there’ for Pilate to find, but was standing before him in the eyes of a Jewish prisoner.  Truth is not about speculation but about life. But this isn’t just fancy postmodernism, its Quakerism. Such a conjunction between God, love and action is the logical out working of our Quaker God-language. When Advices and Queries exhorts us to [take heed]… to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts’ and to ‘trust them as the leadings of God’ we are offered our own version of Zabala’s insight. Practice not theory is the mark of a life imbued with the Quaker story. I might call this a Christ-shaped ethic, David might prefer the language of religious humanism. Whichever language we choose, I think our terms exist within the same Quaker life. We are divided philosophically for sure, but should this dispute of the seminar room impinge on our unity at the level of Worship? Evidently a simple Quaker orthopraxy is not enough. We need a narrative as well as a practice to keep our communities going.

Do We Dare to Share? 

While this cultural-linguistic approach to present tensions among Quakers is far from perfect, it has the potential to build bridges between different kinds of Friends. By turning away from problems of ‘essence’ and metaphysical foundations, Friends might be encouraged to dig down into our native Quaker tongue and find renewed riches in our shared particularities. Once unshackled from barren discussions of theism or non-theism, we can again unite under the canopy of shared Quaker speech and practice. But when all is said and done, is this realistic? In his 2011 Gorman Lecture, Simon Best puts the problem like this:

There is an argument that Quaker theology, with its emphasis on continuing  revelation and change, is inherently radical. However I suggest that rather than being radical, having a theology so open that people can believe anything and still join shows that we are scared of having a tradition, and of being faith-based and spiritually grounded. By being totally open, by accepting all theologies, and even those with no theology but a philosophy, we may include people but we also exclude others. British Quakerism has become an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy….In religious groups a strong surface culture can disguise an absence of deep faith. (Best, The Religious Society of Friends, in Britain: Simple, Contemporary, Radical?, p. 53).

I hear Simon’s concern, but I’d extend and thicken the above verdict a little. The biggest obstacle in the quest for some kind of shared Quaker identity is not so much about belief (God versus no-God). The disunity runs at a much deeper level. It is about the stories we tell to each other about ourselves. We are losing a shared sense of how our narrative relates to our practice and vice versa. We are becoming increasingly hardened to the contours of our own Quaker speech.

The Challenge

It is only our words which bind us together and make us human (Montaigne)

Among some so-called ‘theistic Friends’ such hardness is expressed in an overinvestment in ‘transcendence’ and ‘supernaturalism’ at the expense of our richer native Quaker speech, including our traditional Christology. Instead of looking for the God recorded in our Book of Discipline, such Friends run hither and wither after another God, the deity of contemporary polemic. On the flip side, there are some ‘non-theist’ Friends who refuse to engage with traditional Quaker language about God because of what they think it commits them to.  We have all heard the same remarks in our Meetings, ‘I translate God to ‘good’, ‘I can’t believe in an old man in the sky’, ‘I just can’t accept anything supernatural’. But I wonder whether such God-language commits Friends in the way they think. Does adoption of a shared language mean we lose our own voice and critical capacity? Does it mean Friends have to become supernaturalists (whatever that means)? Of course not. As Lindbeck puts the matter:

Just as grammar by itself affirms nothing either true or false regarding the world in which language is used, but only about language, so theology and doctrine… assert nothing either true or false about God and his relation to creatures, but only speak about such assertions. These assertions, in turn, cannot be made except when speaking religiously, i.e., when seeking to align oneself and others performatively with what one takes to be most important in the universe by worshipping, promising, obeying, exhorting, preaching (The Nature of Doctrine, 69)

What does Lindbeck mean here? He means that adopting a religious language does not mean that everything said in the language has to correspond to reality in the immediate everyday sense. When we make assertions in religious language (like ‘God is love’), they don’t operate as ‘normal facts’ but they do have a function. We do not have to establish some empirical account of the Holy Spirit in order to be carried along by the language of divine presence.  In Meeting for Worship, we know what such language does. It energizes us, gathers us, provokes us and propels us. Nor do we need to possess a philosophical account of prayer for prayer-language to ‘work’. We know what prayer involves, we know what it means ‘to be prayerful’. This kind of ‘work’ is all we can convincingly say about our Quaker language this side of the eschaton. If we try to go beyond our own story to some transcendent essence (an impossible feat) we will tire ourselves out in a pretty pointless task. We would do better if we directed our attention to the practical business of being and acting Quaker. This means digging down into the words and images that continue to draw us together.  Doubtless there will still be some Friends who feel hemmed in by the very idea of some kind of a shared story and language.  For such Friends I can only respond by saying that Quakerism has no future without a shared story. Without a narrative that helps us articulate why we serve and worship together, Quakerism cannot be meaningfully sustained as a Way of transformation. Doubtless the structures of Quakerism can survive well after the religious experiment itself has died (as personal spirituality’ seminars). Such communities (where we all come together to be different) might actually prosper for a time, but I don’t think they will possess the animus and depth of Quaker spirituality and discipline. The only alternative to this paper-thin future is to dig down into a Quakerism with roots but without foundations.Such a faith is in one sense deeply traditional, but it is also deeply postmodern. In such an imagined future ‘isms’ of various kinds might lose their force, as we are refreshed by the stories we love.

The Strange Case of Quaker-Kabbalah

Would the Real Quaker Please Stand Up? 

In a post entitled Hyphenated Quakers, the North Carolina blogger RichardM argues that Liberal Quakerism exists in an increasing state of theological disorder, due to the dissolution of a shared Christian culture among Friends. He asks mournfully: ‘Buddhist-Quakers, Wiccan-Quakers, Jewish-Quakers, what sort of religion has this become? Along with these Native American spirituality, Taoism, Sufism, Zen, Feng Sui and a host of other ideas alien to the Christian tradition are now part of the reality of what the Religious Society of Friends has become. There is no question that this is something very different from the Quakerism of George Fox and John Woolman.’ The assumption of our Friend is that there was once something called ‘real Quakerism’, which everyone from George Fox to John Woolman agreed about. It would certainly be easy for people like me (Christ-centred Quakers) to perpetuate this view. It makes everything so simple. Every time someone disagrees with me or my ‘Christian corner’ I can cry ‘pick and mix’ and at that point end the conversation. This is a brilliant strategy, particularly if one wants to carry on having the rather precious feeling of being right. But, it isn’t that simple.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe that Christian theology is essential for the coherence of a shared Quaker language. But to define the problem as Quaker Christianity versus pluralist anarchy is, I suggest, simplistic. The problem is that in some key respects, George Fox and John Woolman did not themselves agree on some aspects of Quaker identity. Early Friends (including Fox) held to a belief in the celestial flesh. This was the claim that Christ directly dwelt in the saved believer, eventually subsuming their sinful identity. Yet, as far as I know, Woolman did not frame his experience of either God or Christ in this way. Nor would the two men have agreed about the permissibility of keeping slaves. Quaker ethics and theology were on the move from the very beginning, and has not abated since. Consequently what is and is not a ‘true Quaker’ has always been contested. I and my fellow travelers might find this an uncomfortable reality, but it is true. The complexity of this situation is compounded by the fact that Quakerism has always been framed by external religious influences. There was never a period of ‘pure’ Christian Quakerism. Even when Christianity was the sole Quaker descriptor of faith, this Christianity was itself complex. There was always an openness to diversity, which set Friends apart from other religious communities.

The Most Ancient Philosophy of Anne Conway

Two of the most fascinating figures in the history of hyphenated Quakerism are the Scottish Friend George Keith (1639-1716) and the English aristocrat Anne Conway (1631–1679). The two came to develop an abiding friendship when Keith visited Conway in 1674. Conway was already intrigued by Friends, yet she still harbored suspicion that these plainly spoken and undefferential people held disreputable views. Conway’s concern was doubtless partly social and partly philosophical. As the daughter of the one time Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Heneage Finch, Anne was from a culture held in contempt by the early Quaker movement. As a notorious sect which refused ‘hat-honour’, titles and the importance of social distinctions of all kinds, it was unsurprising that Anne should have been hesitant. Her reservations also stemmed from her philosophical training.While Fox proclaimed an earthy Gospel of apostolic purity, Conway was a philosopher, scientist and mystic. A vivid portal into Conway’s brilliant mind is preserved in The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy written just prior to her convincement. At the core of this little tract is the radical claim that the Cartesian philosophy (so influential in Conway’s age) was a denial of the true Christian revelation. While Descartes had taught that the world was divided between inert matter and active spirit, or dead bodies and living souls, Conway argued that matter and soul were one. Falling back on the old Neo-Platonic idea of the Anima Mundi (the world soul), Conway argued that matter dwells in God and desires perfection in Him. As Conway notes:

 Spirit is light or the eye looking at its own proper image, and the body is the darkness which receives this image. And when the spirit beholds it, it is as if someone sees himself in a mirror. But he cannot see himself reflected in the same way in clear air or in any diaphanous body, since the reflection of an image requires a certain opacity, which we call body. . . Just as every spirit needs a body to receive and reflect its image, it also needs a body to retain the image. (Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 38).

If matter is the mirror of the soul, then how is materiality related to God? In a hierarchical structure highly reminiscent of Enneads of Plotinus, The Principles suggests that each being will achieve unity with the Godhead through multiple incarnations. While a given soul might fall back into burdensome forms as a result of sin, all beings will, given time, be made at one with God. What is the role of Jesus is this cosmic process? As the Middle Being between God and creation, the Spirit of Christ seeks the betterment of all creatures, bringing them closer to the divine light. As Conway asserts:

Created things couldn’t be equal to Christ, couldn’t have the same nature that he has. That is because his nature could never sink to their level, changing from good into bad. So their nature is far inferior to his; they can never strictly speaking become him, any more than he can ever become the Father. The highest point they can reach is be like him, as Scripture says. Thus, we as mere creatures are only his sons and daughters by adoption (Conway, p. 11.)

Where did these ideas come from? As the Lady of Ragley Hall, Conway attracted a learned circle of scholars fascinated by Platonism, Hebrew mysticism and the possibilities of the new empirical sciences. As a beloved student of the Cambridge philosopher Henry More and patient of the Flemish alchemist and Kabbalist Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, Conway’s life was at the centre of an intellectual maelstrom. A decisive influence on the Ragley circle was the 16th century Jewish rabbi and mystic Isaac Luria (1534–1572). The ecstatic sage taught the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, but also (crucially for Conway) a perfectionist theodicy. God was not a vindictive judge, but a loving Father. He was forever seeking to liberate his creation from bondage. Suffering and struggle were not punishments, but a means of saving each creature. Echoing these sentiments, van Helmont observed:

If God be unchangeable, as certainly he is, can he absolutely hate any of his Creatures, which once he loved? and if when he most severely punishes his creatures, he loveth them, is not then his punishing them an Act of Love, and consequently medicinal, or in order to their recovery? (Quoted in, A.P. Coudert’s Leibniz and the Kabbalah, p. 119).

What would these grey clad plane spoken Quakers think? Were Friends learned enough to dispute with Lady Anne?

Keith and the Influence of the Ragley Circle

As soon as Keith arrived at Ragley Hall, he made a strong impression on Conway. Carrying several Quakers books and a letter from William Penn, Keith soon convinced the lady of the house to give his religious views a hearing. Despite the evident simplicity of Quaker living, Conway detected a metaphysical sublimity in the Quaker contention that the Spirit of Christ dwelt in all. Conway soon felt herself in communion with the Quaker Way, her life boid up by a new energy. Yet, by embracing Quakerism she did not think she needed to renounce the philosophy of Luria. Indeed, she felt that Quakerism expressed the best of what the Kabbalists had taught; that God’s love would conquer all darkness.George Fox’s belief in the moral perfection of those who dwelt in the Light was simply recast in Kabalistic terms.The path to moral refinement would take many life-times and not just one. Part of the ease with which Conway accepted the Quaker message could also be explained with reference to an early Quaker vision of nature. Not unlike the Kabbalists (and their cousins the hermetic philosophers) many early Friends viewed the universe as a living totality- one which needed to be liberated from powers of darkness by a mode of spiritual discipline. As James Naylor notes in his tract The Lamb’s War (1657):

The Lamb’s quarrel is not against the creation, for then should his weapons be carnal, as the weapons of the worldly spirits are: “For we war not with flesh and blood,” nor against the creation of God; that we love; but we fight against the spiritual powers of wickedness, which wars against God in the creation, and captivates the creation into the lust which wars against the soul, and that the creature may be delivered into its liberty prepared for the sons of God. And this is not against love, nor everlasting peace, but that without which can be no true love nor lasting peace.

This notion of liberation through spiritual means has strong affinities with the Kabbalistic notion of Tikkun olam (repairing the world). Just as the Kabbalists battled daily with the forces of evil through prayer and contemplation, Quaker renounced outward struggle so that nature might be freed from its internal oppression. For his part Keith was open to the wisdom Conway had to impart. As a Hebrew scholar in his own right, Keith soon found that the doctrines of the Kabbalah coincided with own budding Quaker faith. Before coming to Ragley Hall, Keith had worked closely with Robert Barclay in spreading  Quakerism throughout England. It was this experience of evangelical mission that introduced both men to the chief tension of early Quaker theology. While 17th century Friends stressed the centrality of  belief in the historical Jesus, they also affirmed the ethereal light of Christ, which saved all universally, regardless of their outward affirmations. These two propositions produced some thorny questions. What role did the life of Jesus play in saving God’s creation? Was the life of the historical Jesus decisive or not? Could salvation have come without the Incarnation? Keith found an answer to this conundrum via Kabbalistic doctrine. As Coudert notes of Keith’s breakthrough:

The doctrine of the transmigration of souls resolved the issue in his (Keith’s) mind and allowed him to both agree wholeheartedly that a Christian must believe in the historical doctrines of Christianity, and yet retain the Quaker emphasis on ‘saving’ faith. A virtuous pagan could have ‘saving’ faith without ‘historical’ faith, but in time he would have both  (A Quaker-Kabbalist Controversy: George Fox’s Reaction to Francis Mercury van Helmont, p. 180).

Far from watering down the Christian faith with these mystical sources, Keith thought he was deepening his understanding of the saving work of Christ. It was in other words an attempt to answer  Quaker questions through the rich lens of Kabbalistic symbolism. Was this experiment a minority pursuit, or did it say something more profound about the generosity of early Quakerism? Evidence for the latter position can be found in the missions of Samuel Fisher to the Jews of Amsterdam in 1657. In a city awash with Kabbalistic speculation and a renewed Jewish Messianism, Fisher gave verbal ministry at synagogue services, debated theology with Rabbis and translated Quaker tracts into Hebrew. Yet Fisher’s fascination with Judaism was not simply tactical. He evidently found wisdom among the Rabbis, as well as spiritual confirmation of his own Quaker identity. As Fisher reflects in his 1660 tract, The Rustics Alarm to the Rabbis, ‘Is the Light in America then any more insufficient to lead its Followers to God, then the Light in Europe, Asia, Africa, the other three parts of the World?’ The question burned through the early Quaker declaration of the Gospel and caused some early Friends to adopt a mixed faith. Such was Fisher’s tender reverence for his Jewish conversation-partners that the scholar Richard L. Popkin describes Fisher as a ‘Jewish-Quaker’. He may have been the first, but as history reveals, he was not the last. It was this notion of a dual-faith which captured Conway’s heart and the religion to which Van Helmont later converted. Both Conway and Van Helmount were convinced that that the rich inner world postulated by Friends made them Kabbalists in all but name. Yet, this spiritual inclusiveness soon fell fowl of an emergent Quaker orthodoxy which spurned the esoteric speculation of the Kabbalist as much as it despaired of the ecstatic mysticism of James Nayler. Fox, in his suspicion of intellectual artistry, would later advice Friends to investigate the views of Van Helmont and his fellow Kabbalists, a process which eventually led to the learned doctor distancing himself from organized Quakerism. What happened to Keith? The man who had embraced  Kabbalah with such zest would in later years become an arch-theological conservative, break with Friends, and reconcile himself with the Anglican confession. The brief flowering of Quaker-Kabbalism was at an end.

Walking the Middle Way

10 SephirotIn the light of our contemporary anxieties about the nature of Quaker identity, what shall we make of this brief spring of Quaker-Kabbalah? Was it a lucky escape? An aberration which would have destroyed the fledgling movement? Was it perhaps a terrible premonition of the messy Liberal Quakerism to come? Or was it a missed opportunity? Was it a phase in our tradition that we need to recapture and celebrate? How we answer these questions will tell us a great deal about how we understand Quaker identity. Should we seek an authentic Quakerism? Or a rich Quakerism which can draw on many insights? If the latter, how do ensure that our search does not become aimless and undisciplined? How do we in short, guarantee that our search is a Quaker one? This last question is perhaps the most difficult question of the lot, but Conway and Keith might offer a possible clue. As Quakers with a foothold in Kabbalah, their spiritual quest was nourished by the glorious grammar of Jewish mysticism, yet they never lost sight of the Quaker insights they attempted to articulate. They never lost sight of the doctrine of perfection which George Fox had preached, nor did they obscure the universal Spirit of Christ which Fox believed to be the animating principle of Friends’ silent worship. They walked a fruitful middle way between eclecticism and Christian faith, a route which has the power to speak to Friends today. As Doug Gwyn helpfully, expresses this path of moderation:

It is true that Christ-centered Friends too often believe that theirs is the only true language of the Spirit, distrusting all others. But it is also true that Quaker universalists too often dabble in a lot of religious and psychological concepts, systems, and traditions without taking any one of them to any real depth. When Quakerism gets too far removed from its unique Christian spirituality, it becomes shallow, relativistic, trendy. This is a problem in many meetings today. There is no longer a sufficiently defined spiritual path that meeting members practice seriously. There is no shared vision that can bring worship and ministry to depth. Messages become rationalistic or sentimental, pious or political, but they do not speak from the depth to the depth.

Perhaps this is the solution to the Gordian knot of contemporary Quaker identity. Being Quaker has never been about doctrinal purity, but about remaining committed to what arises through our faithful listening. Whatever spiritual sources we cloak our insight in (whatever language of the Spirit we are held by) can we remain within the domain of that Quaker declaration that ‘there is one, Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition?’ We might debate the precise shape of our final destiny, but the question is, will we allow ourselves to be held and loved by that destiny? Can we join Paul in his sense of the indomitable grace of God? For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 38-9)